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Sonja Alper
Jul 1 · 18 min read

CABIN FEVER EXORCISM

e-mails to a mother-in-law from March-June 2020

By Sonja Alper

1

Dear F: I have been bitten by the cleaning bug (our Myrna is not coming right now, of course). Every day — so far — I find something else to do I didn’t even know needed to be done. And you know what? I love to iron, gives me instant gratification. Never thought it would be so simple to satisfy my needs.

This morning, when I emptied the dishwasher, I got curious and went down on my knees to start exploring the innermost life of my trusted companion in fighting grime and grease. Half an hour later, sweat dripping from my brow, I held a scrubbed silvery drum-like thingie in my hand. I did it! The dishwasher filter with all its trimmings is as good as new now. Only the hanger from the dry cleaner, bent and twisted to obscurity, didn’t look so winning. You don’t want to know what the two of us had unearthed by poking around in the private parts of the machine.

The other day I dusted Gregory’s studio and discovered to my dismay that the insides of his cabinets and drawers had piled on dust that could have collected there since we moved in 16 years ago. Of course, the best husband in the world didn’t notice anything. He only has eyes for musical notes and chocolates. Could be worse, I know.

Here’s a tip I just read for your coffee maker. You might know it but any excuse to communicate with you is welcome:

Fill the water reservoir about halfway with vinegar. Run a cycle through without adding a filter or k-cup. Then run two cycles of water through to get rid of the vinegar taste/smell.

Got to go now, have to disinfect the food delivery. How does one wash an egg carton?

2

Dear F: I was oblivious to daily chores and now have transformed into a cleaning fanatic with magnifying eyesight. Nothing escapes me! Armed with an old toothbrush, vinegar and baking soda and another wire hanger I attacked the bathroom sinks, including pipes. It was worth it. Should do this more often to avoid drainage issues which we had in the past. Sorry, Mr. Plumber, no job for you!

I draw the line at washing windows. That’s frustrating. But, if it weren’t raining on and off … who knows?

Ah, the floors, the paw prints! Now I see them, now I don’t. I just won’t look down, I promised myself. Good luck with that. The kitchen is in perfect shape, so there. I cook a lot now, make salads, steam, bake, cut, chop, fill containers, the fridge and freezer and us till we’re about to explode.

Yes, in case you ask, the paw prints are gone — my back still hurts. That cleaning business is a curse — I can’t help it. Maybe I’m the victim of a domino effect kicked off by virus panic and this is my way of exorcising anxiety. I’m fighting for sanity, holding on to some kind of structure to stay balanced. Would it be too dangerous to just sit down, looking into the palm trees, watching seagulls and clouds fly by? While I have no intent to do anything, I constantly find something begging for attention. Excitement and despair at the same time, like an evening out dancing with blisters on my feet. It’s one thing to know why I’m going crazy, another to switch gears.

For now: LOCKDOWN is the rule! I always had a problem with rules, especially those one is not permitted to ignore, it’s a straitjacket for me. This one tells me: “Exhaust yourself with cleaning!” Whatever, fact is I feel like a puppet on a string, somebody is messing with me. What happened to free will?

3

Dear F: Why do I constantly think about shopping for food? It’s become an obsession. We still have enough to last for weeks, even if the two of us continue stuffing ourselves like never before. An odd sensation of “there might not be anything left in the stores tomorrow and we’ll starve” is creeping up my throat and I can’t swallow. How will we survive this? Is this truly happening? Already there’s a toilet paper shortage of all things. This is absurd but seems the new normal now. We might have to eat the freeze dried astronaut food I keep in case of an earthquake. Spaghetti Marinara and Matar Paneer in a package — not something to look forward to.

So, armed with mask and gloves this morning, I headed to the supermarket. Waiting to be let in I was careful to stay away from that guy in front of me who felt the need to entertain everybody while blabbing out loud into his cell phone. Looking for attention from anybody waiting in line, he was dancing around and waving his arms. Lack of feedback egged him on even more. “Like a child”, I thought. My patience grew thin and thinner and I felt the need to kick him. “Shut up already!” I wanted to scream.

In my mind’s eye I saw happy germs spewing out of his non-masked mouth, flying thru the cool morning air, looking for another host to attach themselves to. Obnoxious is an understatement. Where did he escape from? Or is it me? Is my anxiety making me blow things out of proportion?

To top that off, the two old ladies behind me shuffled closer and closer and when they were finally bumping their cart into my back while chatting a non-masked mile a minute, turning this way and that for general confirmation on I-don’t-know-what, I asked them to please stay back. Which prompted one of them to roll her watery eyes, cough and yell: “What do you want from my life?” I was surrounded by nut cases. What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they get it? Hope that’s not representative of how the majority in this country is handling this crisis.

Is the virus now on my clothes? Shoes? Hair? I can’t stop obsessing about it. On the other hand, the virus hates soap and on clothes it dries out and decays quickly I’ve read somewhere. Didn’t help much and I came that close to turning around, going home and taking a shower. But then the guard at the entrance waved me in. A kind supermarket clerk handed me a newly wiped down cart. I had no idea what I wanted anymore. The frozen section was empty. Produce was stocked but no bananas and no avocados. I got a red onion, you never know. And when I peaked in the household aisle — more out of curiosity than of need — I saw no toilet paper. So it’s true, I thought. This was so unreal and my already fragile mind started playing tricks on me. I saw long, long lines of hungry people in war torn countries, screaming babies, armed forces patrolling streets to keep them at bay…

I felt dizzy and went straight to the wine section, got a nice Syrah and a Merlot and a jar of Champagne Strawberry marmalade the next aisle over. A friendly cashier behind her plexiglass barrier waved to me, I paid and couldn’t wait to get out. The line was even longer now, probably some hundred people or more. Shoot! Would have loved to get a baguette and some cheese but there’s no going back. This prestigious supermarket in my affluent neighborhood resembled a snap shot out of the former East Germany or Sovjet Union. Although I did see oranges.

This was the last time, I decided, from now on I let someone else do the shopping. The internet must be good for something.

4

Dear F: Last Saturday was crazy — all of Los Angeles had migrated to the beaches and state parks. They were hiking in groups, playing basketball and soccer, enjoying picnics in great numbers without distancing. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw pictures on Instagram and in the LA Times. But by Sunday all parking lots, piers, entrances to parks and hikes were closed. Police are patrolling neighborhoods and — finally — people are getting it.

It’s 6 feet away from each other or 6 feet under. Oops, not very funny, I know.

We maintain our distance to others when walking the dog. And no more butt sniffing either. Sorry, Ziggy.

Everything in our street is so peaceful, hardly a car goes by, people are super friendly and we all wave to each other as if we were old friends. The need for some kind of communication is apparent, to say the least. Nobody’s rushing these days, no careless or entitled drivers either — previously you couldn’t count on cars slowing down even at stop signs. Everybody is civil and kind. Nice vibe.

Did I already mention that I run 4, 5 miles every day? When I say run I mean walk, incline and decline, on the treadmill. And I stand on my head for at least 5 minutes, I meditate and finally feel relaxed. By 9 o’clock my bed is calling and I follow gladly. Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or next week I might tackle our hillside and trim some overgrown greenery.

We have so many lemons again and I don’t know what to do with them. Normally I’d take them to the Meals on Wheels headquarter where we used to help out sometimes. Now all my ice cube trays are filled with juice already. Whoever said “If life gives you lemons make lemonade” didn’t know what they were talking about. I mean — how much lemonade can one possibly drink before getting sick?

Actually, that’s a good analogy for our current situation, I realize that we had way too much of a good thing and less of it doesn’t deprive me of anything. On the contrary, it broadens my horizon, opens me up to the little things that make life livable. I now see, I hear and I’m happy.

Whether it’s my dog looking at me in this way that melts my heart; a Monarch butterfly leading the way to where I can only follow with my eyes; a seductive big, blood red blossom squeezing thru a fence; birds chirping melodies I never heard before; squirrels chasing each other and performing daring jumps from tree to tree or balancing on the power lines, rushing warp speed like from one end to the other; a shy lizard escaping an unexpected rain shower when I’m hosing down the plants — I’m living in a different universe and I like it.

5

Dear F: Ziggy takes us out twice a day. This morning we visited a doggie friend he likes to play with and the owner invited us to come into the backyard which is a hillside but going down (not up like ours).

Six feet distance on a slippery path brought us to a wide meadow overlooking the ocean. Beautiful! And the dogs had a ball (as in fun). They were running up and down the hill and because of all the rain the grass is so high that most times we only saw a tail here and there. When Ziggy came flying uphill Gregory said “oh, he found something”. It didn’t look like anything good to me and I told Ziggy to drop it. Turned out to be a long neck with an eye still on one end. Oh, no!!! I grabbed a rock and covered what or whoever it once was. Washed my hands forever after we returned home. And not because of the virus.

6

Dear F: Yeah, it gets even more gross. This morning Ziggy sniffed an awful long time around some shrubbery and we were making fun of him “Time to smell the roses?” till I saw something sticking out of his mouth. What the hell! Don’t we feed this poor dog? He’s about to swallow but I go deep into his throat and grab whatever I can get, and before he realizes what’s happening I hold a dead bird in my hand which I immediately throw far, far away. You bet I washed my hands forever and then some, trying to forget about that poor little creature. Should I have buried it?

In the middle of the night, I’m way into a dream I don’t remember, there’s a kind of tapping noise. Right away I’m awake and know what it is without seeing anything in the blackness of the bedroom: Ziggy drums his front paws on the bed, he wants to come up. I help him and immediately he goes all the way to the end where Gregory is peacefully sleeping, turns around and now his tail end is smack in the middle between our faces. A dangerous arrangement (but I didn’t feed him any beans). He hasn’t been on our bed in ages. Wonder why now?

On my way back into dreamland, a disturbing thought pops into my mind, don’t they say dogs sense when an earthquake is coming? OMG! That’s one thing we need like shot in the knee right now. There are not enough sheep to get me back to sleep for a long, long time.

7

Dear F: Had two deliveries today, got my favorite crunchy non-sweetened peanut butter, I’m hooked on it right now — you’d love it, too. Also lots of lettuce, cucumber, zucchini, celery, chard, kale, carrots, onions, bread, bananas, cheese… and my Keto blueberry muffins and chocolate cookies for Gregory. We’re in heaven. Everything got a good washing of course before it went into the refrigerator or in the mouth.

Did you know that an omelet becomes very fluffy when you add sparkling water to the eggs and beat them for a while? I tried it today and it was the best omelet ever!! Could have been whipped up by a 5star chef. The veggies I’d added and the pieces of spicy cheese brought it to perfection. I wonder if that was just luck. Will try it again some time and let you know.

8

Dear F: Another day… Another thought…

Thank goodness for masked mouths, no more pouting Botox lips on faces that one just wants to look away from but can’t. How long does that stuff last anyway? What happens when lips deflate? Will we see Star Trek monster faces till beauty enhancements are possible again? What’s it going to look like, the world post Botox? Read that doctors in Beverly Hills can’t wait to do surgery again to fix boobs and butt cheeks.

Wrinkles around my eyes are forgotten while I land a Mon Cherie on my tongue. The dark, dark chocolate pralines from Germany, filled with a cherry that swims in a sip of Cognac, always make me happy — one at a time. It’s the little things that count, no? I might have mentioned that already.

9

Dear F: Morning walk as usual. Today it was awfully quiet. Met just a handful joggers/walkers. ALL wore masks or covered their faces with a scarf. Good.

I started shopping again. Felt the strong urge to be out, to look thru the aisles, choose what I need or more: what I long for at that moment. Yes, I’m always wearing gloves as well and have disinfectant spray in my jacket pocket.

Read today about autopsies on Corona patients: 55 out of 61 of those examined in Hamburg, Germany (my far away hometown), had a previous cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, a heart attack, arteriosclerosis or another heart weakness. 46 autopsies had a previous lung disease. 28 had damage to other organs such as kidneys, liver or transplant organs. 16 were suffering from dementia, others had cancer, were severely overweight or suffered from diabetes.

Can I relax now?

10

Dear F: Thanks to daily yoga and workout on the Treadmill I have kept my cool (mostly) and weight despite my new passion for pasta, chocolate and bread. Don’t worry.

Still, sometimes I am depressed, like this morning. Weird dreams I don’t remember (others I don’t want to share) nibbled at my sanity. Waking up with a feeling of uncertainty if it will ever go back to how it was before. Or is this the new normal? Loosing direction and the meaning of life’s day to day routines is not very consoling. I’m good at pretending and get up even though I’d rather pull the blanket over my face and stay in bed.

I cling to the dog walks, the only constant I can count on and, you know what, I’m always surprised when I come home smiling. Like today when we met Noodle Man and Little Red Riding Hood. Don’t you just love five year olds? Living out their fantasies in homemade costumes is all that matters to them.

Grown-ups are guarded, saying how wonderful everything is and aren’t we lucky to have Zoom? Yeah it’s just a phrase, why should they tell me what they really feel anyway? I’m nobody’s therapist. But it bugs me when all I hear is “I’m doing great, couldn’t be better. We’re so blessed to live in this beautiful neighborhood.” While this is certainly true, it sometimes itches me to say something like: “And how do you really feel?” Then again, opening a can of worms is not necessarily advised. Can’t change the American way of eternal self confidence. So I chime in and agree about the best weather, the most interesting movie, the dead gorgeous dress some star was wearing for the Oscars, Golden Globes — you name it. Honesty is shared with one’s shrink only. Am I prejudiced?

Read in today’s New York Times: “Until the virus is subdued either by a vaccine or by a global campaign of strategically coordinated lockdowns — which one Harvard study estimated would take two years to work — daily life is likely to be defined by efforts to manage the pandemic. There is no master formula.”

“In past crises”, researchers found, “the deepest traumas surfaced only after they had ended. That anxiety will linger for a long time, and it will profoundly change how people interact for a long time.”

Time to hit the running machine.

11

Dear F: Walking, sniffing, eating and begging for treats while performing a trick or two, Ziggy is content and happy. And why not? He’s never alone at home. Sometimes he leisurely strolls towards the studio, a closed door is no obstacle, all he does is jump on the handle and in he goes. This dog loves music and to accompany Gregory on Tenor and Flute. His “singing” comes from deep inside the place where his doggie soul lives. One senses the pure pleasure he must feel expressing himself in that way. He even responds to single sounds: three toots of sax get answered equally by three toots of dog.

This morning was especially beautiful. The Pacific Ocean was so blue, the sky paled with envy. Gregory and Ziggy were a few steps ahead of me when, all of a sudden, this bird shoots down from the sky straight at my poor dog’s head before, at the very last moment, pulling up and away, back to the power line. Gregory and I looked at each other, stunned. Ziggy didn’t notice a thing. What does that tell us? I don’t believe in omens. But this got me thinking.

12

Dear F: We have more bananas than we could possibly finish before they go bad. Can they be frozen? Hell yeah, why not! So I cut lots of little pieces, arranged them neatly next to each other in a glass container. And then it happened, I noticed these tiny faces looking up at me. What has she been smoking you might wonder? Well, nothing but the faces were there. Some sad and some really, really angry. Not one smiley face. Am I loosing it?

13

Dear F: Never, never, never again! Siting under the lamp with tweezers, glasses, scotch tape and a shot of Whiskey, I flinched in excruciating pain. What happened?

I’d felt ambitious, put on long pants, a long sleeved shirt, hat and garden gloves. So far so good. Climbed the hill, started chopping and trimming, stepping carefully over dead prickly pear leaves, ripping out ivy, cutting oleander and other green things I have no name for. Two hours later not only had I made a dent, it also looked great.

Sweat pouring down my face I stepped into the shower. Ouch!!! My right thumb… what the hell? Ouch, my right knee! F…! I stopped the water, inspected the situation carefully while flinching in pain on a scale of a very bad drill at the dentist’s. Hundreds of the tiniest, almost transparent spikes had attached themselves to my skin. It took no time to feel them because they hurt so much but it took a long time to locate one after the other to pull them out. All afternoon there was another little sucker and I finally reached for the Scotch.

14

Dear F: No one dog walk is like any other. Today we’re walking a musical scale of a special kind. The instruments? Unseen dogs, big and small, behind fences from where ascended baritone muffles to high pitched shouting, low warnings mixed with a bit of techno wailing. Ziggy, the best dog of all, kept his cool. Sniffed here and left a message there as he ambled up the street. I’m a bit envious, he doesn’t care about being accosted by invisible barkers. Is it dog wisdom, experience or just old age? Wish I could be so carefree…

15

Dear F: It’s happening, I saw the dog hair on the wooden floor but didn’t run to get the vacuum. Who cares? I’m so tired. Yes, I walk my miles every day and I cook, clean up and work on the computer but this is a new sensation.

I’ll put my legs up the wall, just for a few minutes”, I thought. Almost an hour later I woke up, curled into a ball, Ziggy’s back pressing into mine. I was so fatigued, felt so cold.

It’s way past Ziggy’s feeding time and the most patient dog in the world looked at me. What will it be? What will it be? It’s always the same but for him it’s new every time and his excitement knows no boundaries. He shoots me a look filled with expectation and after he gulped down his little meat nuggets he was ready for his outing.

Whenever I grab the leash his happiness gives me little pangs of joy. He surrounds me a million times, biting the air which looks like barking without sound and my mood is lifting. Always.

16

Dear F: From across the street came Danny’s little voice this morning who saw me picking up somebody’s poop that graced our driveway. I didn’t understand what he was saying and asked if he could find different words after he’d repeated it three times already. Still didn’t get it. But it was about poop, that much I understood. So I shouted back into the blue: “It’s not Ziggy’s poop!”

Bingo!

Danny: “How do you know?”

I: “Different color. I know the color, depends on what I feed him.”

Danny: “I had broccoli the other day and my poop came out purple.”

Thank you, Danny, loved chatting with you. Can’t wait for more.

Here’s a depressing update I heard today: “People may struggle to regulate their emotions, finding anger and panic come more easily. There could be upticks in insomnia and substance abuse. It will profoundly change how people interact for a long time, maybe forever.”

Danny, please keep me entertained and I’ll be fine.

17

Dear F: I’ve become a list maker. Chores are not hanging over my head anymore. Why clean now if I can do it tomorrow? Or next week? There’s no rush.

Nothing is interfering with my daily life and pleasures, yes there are lots of enjoyable moments, more than I can document. So instead of obsessing about everything like before, it’s forgotten as soon as the pen leaves the paper.

My mind is free for other things like sitting in the garden, watching the bees and the birds. Walking the neighborhood, lying on the yoga mat with eyes closed. My sensors are more receptive for everything positive now.

If I feel ambitious I sometimes climb our hill and loose myself in the ever changing colors of the ocean sparkling in the sunlight, Ziggy by my side and seagulls performing their incredible stunts while flying thru the air below me.

18

Dear F: You won’t believe what I discovered today! Oh man, that was so special and truly magical. I was going to remove some shmutz from one palm frond outside our bedroom window, which I had discovered in the morning after opening the curtains. No bigger than a chicken egg, but still a sore spot to me. Till late afternoon I’d forgotten about it but then I finally went into the backyard to make it nice and clean again. Imagine my surprise when I saw a hummingbird sitting on the dirtball which turned out to be its nest. This hummingbird, one hardly ever sees them not propelling through the air like a drone on speed, was perfectly still, not even the tiny head moved when I stopped in my tracks just an arms length away. The long beak pointed over the rim of the grey ball with a few feathers peeking out here and there. It’s probably very cozy in there for the kids once they cracked their way into this world. Careful not to disturb the mom-to-be I retreated — step by step — backwards till I couldn’t see it anymore. When I realized I had held my breath the whole time I felt a bit silly but at the same time a joyful tingling in my belly.

What is she thinking all day long? I mean, birds have a brain, a bird brain yes, but does that mean they don’t contemplate their next move? Crows are very smart and parrots, too, I’ve seen that in nature movies. Hummies are tiny and their brains are proportionally smaller of course. Size doesn’t seem to matter. They still know what to do, where to go, what to feed.

Before darkness I checked back on the nest, when the mom-to-be, in subdued grey/brown tones, not anything like the tantalizing colors one attributes to hummingbirds — that’s a male privilege — was just returning from somewhere. She took the time to fly a few circles around my head before getting comfy again on her future offspring. As if to signal to me that all would be well.

I’m optimistic, how about you?

Cheers,

Sonja

PS There might be a Part 2 but then — there might not be a Part 2.

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by TB

Sonja Alper

Written by

Sonja worked as journalist, editor, correspondent in Hamburg (Germany), New York, Los Angeles for COSMOPOLITAN, Architectual Digest and others.

Sonja Alper

Written by

Sonja worked as journalist, editor, correspondent in Hamburg (Germany), New York, Los Angeles for COSMOPOLITAN, Architectual Digest and others.

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