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Charity’s column: In a pandemic, act like an animal

I have a sister living in Arkansas, where the peak of the coronavirus hasn’t hit — yet. She says it’s “like being at the base of a mountain, where it’s sunny and lovely, but I can hear the rumble of an avalanche coming down.”

For the people who have already lost a job or a loved one the avalanche has arrived, but for the rest of us, it’s hard to know what we should be doing.

When facing threats to my well being, doing things makes me feel better. But in this crisis, once I had filled the freezer, secured the drinking water, donated to the organizations that are dealing with this mess, and washed my hands, I was at a loss. Am I really expected to bake sourdough bread and watch Tiger King for the foreseeable future?

Bad things happen to people with too much unstructured time on their hands, something my mother warned me about during a recent phone call. She’s an independent woman in her 80s who teaches a French conversation class during the day and uses oxygen at night to manage lung disease. I’d been calling her so often she started playing with me.

Two years ago, I gave her 10 N95 masks for Christmas (I considered it a thoughtful gift) along with a supply of drinking water, and she said she couldn’t find either. I tried to persuade her to move her conversation class to Zoom, and she interrupted me with the story of running an errand that involved driving and interacting with people in crowded places. This information predictably whipped me into a frenzy, and it took a few days for me to realize what she was trying to tell me; stop pestering her with hysterical phone calls, and to hell with Zoom.

I love you, Mom.

I did some grocery shopping for a neighbor, but the bananas I brought her were too ripe, and she asked me to replace them with some greener ones the next day. Appalled at the waste of perfectly good fruit, I suggested she use them, since overripe bananas can be frozen and used to make a sweet and creamy smoothie. This is not what she wanted to hear. She was looking forward to a firm, easy-slicing banana for her pandemic breakfast. Brown mushy parts were not part of her vision.

The bananas were rejected, and I was schooled.

In an emergency, the comfort of familiar food is important. Outside my bunker for a therapeutic walk I have observed useful activity in the animal world that I can model. The osprey are hard at work building nests. When a bird this size builds a place to raise young, it’s more like something involving a survey and two-by-fours than twig- and feather-lined cups nestled in the crook of a tree branch. I nodded approvingly as an osprey flew by with a branch the size of a javelin for a building site atop a platform overlooking Dering Harbor.

On another outdoor foray I spied a seal lying on a rock in Gardiner’s Bay right off the Ram Island causeway. Like the osprey, the seal’s pandemic behavior seemed worth emulating — go to the beach by yourself, swim out to a rock and lie on it, keeping a lookout for anyone who might approach. If they do, swim away.

The neighborhood racoons are not picky about eating wilted vegetables and scraps of food as they nose around foraging and getting plenty of exercise. They deftly avoid getting near anyone, and they always wear a mask. I will reproduce this behavior on my next excursion to the IGA.

Back indoors, my hound Mabel makes time to nap in between the lengthy rounds of dog walking that I impose on her. During those walks, she insists on stopping to smell the roses. And since roses are not yet in bloom, she stops to smell earthworms and deer poop, and other items of importance to her, for she is a dog.

Most of the rest of her day is spent asleep, her quiet breathing punctuated by lively dreams that cause her tail to thwump, her legs to gallop, and her nose to twitch. She never offers unwanted advice, and she’s always available to comfort and console her loved ones. I will try harder to follow her example.