Statement of Record

Quarantine Diary (excerpt)

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Quarantine Diary (excerpt)

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Matthew Vollmer

Trying to read David Markson’s Reader’s Block during a plumber’s visit. Yesterday, E, my son, clogged up the toilet in his bathroom. Upon further interrogation, he admitted that he’d flushed something called a “Magic Eraser” down the commode. Spent twenty minutes pumping a plunger, trying to get the turds of a person I helped create to disappear down the tube. No dice. Got pissed. K—my wife—wondered why I couldn’t be more forgiving. She said she didn’t understand but didn’t finish her sentence. I knew what she meant even though she hadn’t said it: she was thinking how unfailingly forgiving my own father is and how strange it is that I hadn’t inherited this tendency. According to an article in the Detroit News, which was accompanied by a photo of a scantily clad lady wearing a facemask, strip clubs want a cut of the Coronavirus aid. Due to global lockdown, for the first time in three decades, residents in the northern state of Punjab, India can see the Himalayas, which had been obscured by pollution. Tornados and thunderstorms ravaged the southeast last night; this morning is fleecy clouds, blue sky, and intermittent sunshine. On my walk over the nearby golf course hill and over part of a crushed chain-link fence and into the next neighborhood, I spotted my friend Ed retrieving his mail. I yelled his name. We chatted, from a distance. Had he heard that scientists had found six different kinds of Coronavirus in bats? He had. Simple solution, I said. Stop eating bats. At least it hadn’t come from pangolins, Ed said. He was tired, he said, of the Chinese eating all manner of creatures so that they could get erections. A retired professor of Virginia Tech’s Industrial Design program, Ed, a vegetarian, has been to China many times. “They tried to feed me seahorse soup once,” he said. “One guy said it’ll make you. . .” and then gestured with his hands in the air as if to make the sign of a giant cock. “I told him I didn’t need that,” Ed said. “I’ve been married for forty years!” Another man named Chuck—an unemployed guy who used to volunteer, if my memory serves me correctly, to help homeless men in Atlanta, or maybe he worked with Habitat for Humanity building houses—approached with his two golden retrievers. He asked where I was headed. I told him: the woods next to the quarry. He said he’d just spotted some red flowers, what was their name? He couldn’t remember. Name started with a C. “Up in the upper peninsula of Michigan, where we used to live,” Chuck said, “you know when they got the news about being six feet apart from one another, they said, why so close?” The three of us shared a laugh. An old man wearing headphones approached us. Behind him, a small SUV was honking its horn. Inside, a woman from the Foreign Language department and her husband, a tall, lanky literary theorist with long, puffy gray hair who commuted to his job at Duke University. They were both gesticulating wildly and indignantly as they passed. The old man just smiled and kept walking. “Columbine,” Chuck said, before he left. “That’s the flower.”

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“This is a time of collective intensity,” Luisa said. Luisa is a shamanic psychotherapist with whom I have worked previously, and I was watching her speak on a YouTube channel about how to widen one’s metaphorical riverbed. “Intensity is life-force energy,” she said, “and I want to share with you how to keep the power of that energy moving and flowing so it doesn’t get stuck. When our energy is flowing, we are more able to grow and evolve through our experience. Intensity is another word for power, another way of describing life-force energy. When things get intense, what happens is very similar to when snow melts in the mountains. . . If there is a very rapid snowmelt, then that melted snow moves with much greater intensity. As humans we are reflections of the natural world. We function as the natural world; we are part of nature. When we are in the midst of great change, we too are experiencing rapid ice melt. The heat is on and the temperature is high and what had been held back is now moving through us with a greater velocity. I want you to feel and imagine there is something coming through the crown of your head. If it gets jammed up, this is when we experience emotions that are stuck, that don’t serve us or keep us in alignment with the present moment. As if the riverbed were blocked with old trees and plants or just trash. We’re going to work together to clear the riverbed, widen that area so that flow of life-giving water can move through us and create the conditions for us to feel present. When I’m able to be present and breathe, that makes it possible to grow, to transform, to learn, and evolve. And when that happens as a collective experience, there’s even more power in that.” I listened to Luisa say, “I now align myself with the flow of source.” I repeated it. Tried to feel better. Wondered if I did. Hoped I would.

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“As a Buddhist,” the Dalai Lama recently wrote in an official statement, “I believe in the principle of impermanence. Eventually, this virus will pass, as I have seen wars and other terrible threats pass in my lifetime, and we will have the opportunity to rebuild our global community as we have done many times before. I sincerely hope that everyone can stay safe and stay calm. At this time of uncertainty, it is important that we do not lose hope and confidence in the constructive efforts so many are making.”

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Food technologist Eugene Gagliardi, who developed “popcorn chicken,” may have foreseen the popularity of his thinly-sliced, frozen steak product “Steak-umm,” but could he have ever imagined, at the time of these significant inventions, the Internet? Or that the person running the “Steak-umm” Twitter account would represent the voice of reason during an era of conspiracy-ridden paranoia? Would Galiardi endorse the social media master who, when responding to the questions “Why do people believe in conspiracies? Why do they follow cult personalities or seek contrarian opinions?” had answered, “Because they’re vulnerable. They feel bullied or left behind or isolated or exploited or abused or inadequate and they’re looking for answers, community, security, and identity” and “When you hold a fringe belief or become part of a tightly-knit outcast group, you feel like you have some secret, valuable information that the world needs. You feel important for knowing it. And anyone on the outside becomes a vague, intangible enemy, often referred to as ‘they,’” and “It can be difficult to know what to believe in a time when institutional trust is diminished and the gatekeepers of information have been dismantled, but it’s more crucial now than ever before to follow a range of credentialed sources for both breaking news and data collection”? I like to think he would. 

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My doctor, who a friend refers to as “Prescription Pad Chad,” called today to discuss treatment of a kidney stone. Two days before, I’d woken up to a familiar pain in my lower back. Wondered if I should go to the emergency room. Nurse at clinic said I could provide urine specimen and then have a phone consult. Peed into a plastic tub that once held Talenti ice cream, twisted lid on, placed in lunch-sized paper bag, and delivered it to clinic’s curbside. Two days later, Doc calls. Told him pain had been mild so far but was scared it could get worse. I’d been in emergency rooms before where a dose of morphine hadn’t touched the pain. Doc said he’d go ahead and prescribe me some medications just in case, told me—as he had before, and as he had to a great many people, I supposed—that he’d had patients tell him that the pain of passing a stone had surpassed that of giving birth. “It’s like getting a grain of sand in your eyeball,” he said. “Little things,” he added, “can cause great pain.” Later, I watched a TikTok where an Asian woman was rolling around the floor of her house while a computerized female voice narrated her predicament: “help I’ve put hand sanitzer on and forgot I had a hangnail and oh how it burns please help God.” I filled up a gallon milk jug with water and chugged. Lacking a strainer, I studied, like some kind of warped fortune teller, my toilet bowl for the tiny particulate that would indicate passage of a stone. But I never found anything. And though the pain seems to have receded, I know it can return anytime.

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A former student texted me from Scotland. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, “about writing a story about a man shitting on himself on purpose.” I wondered what purpose that might serve. “It’s just so ingrained in us that shitting yourself is the ultimate faux pas,” he continued, “that there must be a sense of liberation in it.” I suggested that shitting oneself might represent the ultimate act of defiance, and he said that it would be a kind of Diogenes-like act, and that Diogenes, were he alive today, would probably shit himself in “city center.” I didn’t know who Diogenes was. My former student explained that he was the best philosopher, and that his favorite quote from the man had been “in a rich man’s house, the only place to spit is his face.” I texted back that I loved him already and my friend said, “Yeah, he lived in a barrel and used to eat garbage.” I typed “Diogenes” into Google, and learned, via Wikipedia, that he had become “notorious for his philosophical stunts, such as carrying a lamp during the day, claiming to be looking for an honest man.” Although no known writing of his exists, Diogenes is said to have eaten in the marketplace, urinated on some people who insulted him, defecated in the theatre and masturbated in public. On the indecency of his masturbating in public he would say, “If only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly.” I agreed that this man seemed like one I should follow.

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Laura Spinney, in her book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, tells us that some have suggested that The Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, “sprang from his flu-darkened thoughts. ‘One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below,’ he wrote later. ‘I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream.’ By the time Munch wrote those words, the pandemic was over, and so was the millennia-long struggle between man and flu.“ Or so Spinney thought; 102 years later, here we go again. 

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Because disinfectant is so effective at killing the coronavirus, the President of the United States of America suggested that “something like it” might be injected into the human body. In response, Twitter users suggested that, according to that logic, perhaps people eat Tide pods; a Facebook user created a fake product called “Clorox Chewables.” What to believe? Now that we had “deepfakes,” people could choose to believe even live footage of political speeches are doctored. CNN reported that a giant asteroid was headed to earth, and that it looks like it’s wearing a face mask—but how am I to be sure? On Reddit, I watched a video: “Girl Goes Viral as She Is Attacked while Trying to Eat a Live Octopus.” My nephew Will, who hadn’t sent me a text since July of 2019, asked me to look at the YouTube page of the so-called “Ice Age Farmer,” who claimed that humans were on the brink of a global food shortage in part due to a Grand Solar Minimum. But when I Googled “Ice Age Farmer” and the only hits were from the Ice Age Farmer’s site, I refused to watch any videos, and told my nephew that I was starting to worry about his sources. On the occasion of John Muir’s 182nd birthday, Adventure Journal posted quotes from the explorer, including “I never saw a discontented tree” and “Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action” and “The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” 

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After the sun went down, walked for an hour through fog while talking to my friend Nancy, a nurse who lives in Montana with her husband and three kids, whom she homeschooled. Nancy thought I should take the Enneagram personality test. So I did. According to my answers, I got “The Enthusiast.” My wife, who thought the test was stupid, took it anyway and got “The Challenger.” E was “The Helper.” “I guess I’m the asshole in the family,” K said. Cooked bacon on grill outside in a chilly wind. K opened window to say, “Cooking bacon on a Monday morning?” I told her that that was just what a Challenger would say. Ate bacon and eggs and a mandarin orange while re-watching episode four of The Last Dance. Checked email. Received PDF of my application for loan forgiveness, though the person from HR who’d created it included the note that said “To Whom It May Concern please sign this and return to me as a PDF.” Suited up in winter biking gear and rode to English Department. Fixed PDF. Uploaded it. Visited Patty, a receptionist who had come into the office to work. Told her about the personality tests. Learned that a restaurant in Eggleston, nearly half an hour’s drive away, was delivering food to Blacksburg. Had Patty heard about The Bad Apple, the new restaurant in nearby Pembroke? She looked it up on her computer. The dining room was inside a refurbished barn. Stained-glass windows blazed with light. Together, we browsed the menu. “Artisanal cocktails” seemed like something from the past. I showed her a picture I’d taken a few days earlier during a night walk, of a floodlit dogwood, Venus shining brightly in the sky above. I can’t stop playing Days Gone, even though I’m getting sick of it. Of searching for gas cans to refill my motorcycle’s quickly depleted tank, busting opening the hoods of abandoned cars to search for scrap to repair my machete, gathering rags and empty bottles and fuel to craft Molotov cocktails, slashing the throats of endless zombies, staving off attacks by wolves and cougars and infected grizzlies, crafting bandages to heal my wounds during firefights with roving marauders. Of hearing my avatar talk about how he, like me, keeps “losing track of time.” Took a break to baste wings—a free ad-on with my subscription to Butcher Box—with Sweet Baby Ray’s Buffalo Sauce. Lacking newspaper, I ripped up a Kroger paper bag and stuffed it into the bottom of my Rapidfire Charcoal Chimney Starter, poured briquettes inside, and lit it. Sipped whiskey while watching neighbor girls chatting: one stood on the lawn, the other sat on her front stoop. Remembered the girls I’d seen on a recent bike ride: each standing in their driveways, one across from the other, taking turns flying their paper planes, and when one of the girls had to retrieve her plane from a nearby yard, the other girl yelled her name, and said, “You’re getting too close to your neighbor!” A reporter on NPR referred to the virus as “the plague” but talked about it in terms of a forest fire: yes, the devastation was real, but hopefully might pave the way for restoration. According to AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein, “People were also noticing animals in places and at times they don’t usually. Coyotes had meandered along downtown Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. A puma roamed the streets of Santiago de Chile. Goats took over a town in Wales. In India, already daring wildlife has become bolder with hungry monkeys entering homes and opening refrigerators to look for food.” For most of the day, like most days during the pandemic, my wife and son wore Air Pods in their ears. Which meant that they had been so lost in their own little worlds that when I’d ask them questions, they couldn’t hear me, and so they replied, nine times out of ten, by asking me to repeat what I’d already said.

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A Florida lawyer dressed up like the Grim Reaper to scare beachgoers. Biologists invented a new method of fighting viruses, using llama blood and molecular super glue. According to an article on Patheos, the earth needed a Sabbath. “This might be the first time since the beginning of the Industrial Age that Earth is finally getting a break from the relentless activity and growth of human industrial production,” Leah D. Schade writes. “I’ve noted with bitter irony,” she added, “that the virus is using the same tactics against the human body that humans have used against Earth’s body. The virus attacks the lungs, multiplying and destroying the ‘respiratory tree’ down to the tiniest alveoli that enable the exchange of oxygen into our bloodstream. Similarly, humans have pushed into forests and natural areas, destroying the very trees that create the oxygen we breathe.” Dr. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. She is also a professional harpist with a CD whose title resonates with post-pandemic irony: Shall We Gather. There are photos of Dr. Schade online in “Biblical drag”—a costume that resembles the kind of thing someone in the movie Midsommar might wear. I wanted to write to her but couldn’t find her email, so instead I followed her on Twitter. She didn’t follow back. On the same day that I learned that the Pentagon revealed information about UFOs to the public, my friend Evan and his son Jackson watched a line of lights stream across the sky; it turned out to be Space X’s Starlink satellites, whose visibility Elon Musk hopes to diminish. My friend Beejay wrote to me to say that her bad lungs had forced her to move from Cairo to Australia, leaving her husband, a diplomat, behind; now she resides in a shed in the back of her parents’ house and lives, in her words, out of a suitcase. My students were already writing about the pandemic—some simply mentioned it casually, like “I’m writing this during the pandemic”—and for others it was all they could focus on: the ridiculous amount of money that Jeff Bezos makes per hour, while workers are being fired in droves because farmers have nobody to sell their crops to. The bulldozed fields of lettuce. Our friend Gena and her daughter Nyala stopped by last night before dinner to talk to us. They remained seated in their car. We stood in the yard. After they left, K returned to TikTok. My son disappeared into his room and shut the door. I returned to my office, fired up the PS4, and resumed the slaughtering of zombies. 

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Last night K asked me what it was gonna be like after the pandemic was over. I didn’t repeat the sentence by Alan Watts that I’d been thinking of so often: “We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.” Instead, I told her that if worse came to worst we could retreat to my dad’s house and start a commune. And if things got really bad, we could just fix ourselves vodka cyanide cocktails. I was thinking about the Heaven’s Gate cult. Twenty-three years ago this March, thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, all of whom were dressed in black pants and black Nikes with white swooshes, chased a concoction of phenobarbital and applesauce with vodka, placed plastic bags around their heads, and died. The night before, they’d all gone out to eat at a Marie Callendar’s restaurant, to enjoy their last supper on Earth. According to the L.A. Times, one of the waiters there said that they all ordered the same thing, and that everything was set up before they arrived. “They all had iced teas to drink,” the waiter said. “Dinner salads beforehand with tomato vinegar dressing. Turkey pot pie for the entree. Cheesecake with blueberries on top for dessert. They seemed very nice, very friendly, very polite. No one seemed depressed at all, or anything like that.” And perhaps they weren’t. Just as I can understand the allure of absolute and total rebellion—hookers and blow, etc.—so too can I imagine the sweet relief of acquiescing one’s will, of handing it over to somebody else, of agreeing to a system of beliefs in which the kind of thoughts one can think are limited. What to wear? Already decided. What to order? Taken care of. A life in which you were so sure of what you believed that you laid yourself down on a bed and died. Whether the members of Heaven’s Gate were able, as they surely believed, to fly out of their human containers into a spaceship that was following the Hale-Bopp comet, no one can say. But Nike discontinued the shoes that they wore, pairs of which can still be found on the Internet. If you are willing to pay upwards of six thousand dollars, you too can own a pair of these shoes. “I didn’t know Marie Callendar’s was a restaurant,” my wife said when I relayed this story. She’d only seen the boxed meals in the frozen foods section of grocery stores. Had she heard about “skin hunger”? She had not. An article in Wired magazine described how a woman—a 31-year-old director—had been breaking the rules of lockdown to walk to the end of the garden to meet her best friend. “There,” the article said, “with the furtiveness of a street drug deal, Lucy hugs her tightly. Alice struggles to let her go. ‘You just get that rush of feeling better,’ Alice says. ‘Like it’s all okay.’” And I had to suppose—because I hug K every morning when she kindly brings me coffee in bed—that for at least a minute it felt like it might be. 

About the author

Matthew Vollmer is the author of Future Missionaries of America, inscriptions for headstones, Gateway to Paradise, and Permanent Exhibit. As an Associate Professor of English, he teaches creative writing and literature at Virginia Tech.

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