The Corona Diaries: Parallel play

Mid-February in the Swiss capital: as the pandemic grinds on it’s definitely getting to me more. Differently from many, it’s not the relative lack of social contact: I’m not the most social animal at the best of times. I would even say it’s been quite good for me and my wife that we’ve both been working from home for much of the last year, which means that we don’t just see each other in the morning when we’re still tired and in the evening when we’re tired again. I have been seeing a friend once a week for coffee, but beyond this I don’t acutely miss going out and meeting people in larger numbers than what I can count on one hand; I can get most of the social interaction I need via Skype, Zoom and Tabletop Simulator – the latter of which allows us to rule at the boardgame Pandemic during an actual pandemic. What times we live in!

What I miss is less meeting people and interacting with them. I miss what in terms of child development is referred to as ‘parallel play’. It’s sitting in an audience with others while we all watch a film or a play. It’s sitting in a café reading a magazine while there are other people at other tables, or visiting a museum to check out an exhibition, while others also look at the art. It’s feeling that society is still there, still humming in the background, even if I don’t have to pick up the individual words of the song. Apparently parallel play is also a less advanced phase in a child’s development, so perhaps I’ve never made it out of mid-toddlerdom, but so be it. It’s this kind of indirect social contact that I’m currently missing most.

Incidentally, ‘parallel play’ was also the title of a fourth-season episode of Six Feet Under, featuring a pre-Deadwood, pre-Breaking Bad Anna Gunn, and I’ve taken this ongoing pandemic and the nth week of some form of lockdown as an opportunity to return to the series. Six Feet Under used to be my favourite series, even if these days it may have to share that particular pedestal with The Leftovers – but it’s been more than ten years since I last watched it. (I revisited a key episode just after my mother died in 2009.) When I first watched Six Feet Under, I considered myself somewhere between the teenaged Claire and the two older brothers, David and Nate, both of them not middle-aged yet but definitely at a point in their lives where they could smell its faint yet desperate odour. Now, returning to the world of Fisher and Sons, I find that I’m older than the characters I’d previously identified with most – and that, somewhat frighteningly, I feel closest in some ways to Nathaniel Fisher Sr, the character whose death kicks off the series.

Which takes me to a different, although perhaps not all that different, aspect of the pandemic. I’ve never felt as acutely middle-aged as I have during these last twelve months or so. There’s something about life, at least unvaccinated life, under COVID-19 that very much feels like all the best moments are in the past and that anything up ahead will be tired, guarded, muted: that even when we can take off our facial masks, the ghosts of those masks will remain, and everything we’ll experience will feel like there’s several layers of fabric between us and life.

Though as the sun peaks through those mid-February clouds, I get more than a little hint that this mild winter/pandemic depression is just that, a momentary affliction. It may still be a couple of months before I can indulge in parallel play the way I dearly want to right now, but the moment those cafés and cinemas open? I’ll be there, a coffee or a glass of wine on one side, my wife and favourite movie-goer-with on the other, and when the lights dim and that curtain opens I may just have the biggest, dopiest smile on my face. And that moment will be there before I’ve finished watching Six Feet Under for the third or fourth time, so as much as possible, I’ll try to measure time not in days, weeks or months but in series I’m enjoying or books I’m reading or podcasts I’m listening to.

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