There is a game I used to play when I was little. Several children stood in a line. The first child whispered a message into the second child’s ear. The second child passed the message on to the third, and so on. The game was played with five, six or even more players. The last child announced to the group the message he received the way he heard it. While the purpose was to deliver the message unaltered, the most fun was comparing the original message to the one enunciated by the last child. If I was the first in line and my message was, “I took the dog for a walk,” the final version of it might sound something like, “A dog rode his bicycle around the block,” or “The dog food is out of stock.”
I looked up this game on line. In Commonwealth English, it is called Chinese Whispers. In American English, it is called Telephone. Where I grew up, it was called Cordless Telephone, long before wireless communication was a thing. Also on line, I found the following statement: “It [the game] is often invoked as a metaphor for cumulative error, especially the inaccuracies as rumors or gossip spread, or, more generally, for the unreliability of human recollection or even oral traditions.”
I remembered this game because it mimics the reality of our coronavirus life today. One hears messages all the time, countless messages, and one doubts them continuously. They usually contain a grain of truth wrapped in a multitude of rumors. Removing the layers in order to get to the truth is a biased individual endeavor and the result varies from person to person. All information is twisted and subservient to one’s core beliefs. Reality is out of focus. There is no absolute truth. Only my truth.
There is a scene in my novel in progress, The Ultimate Patient, where a train stops in the middle of a field. World War II is raging. Rumors fly. A bridge a few miles ahead might have been destroyed. The partisans might have blown up the tracks. The enemy’s airplanes might have bombed the next station. Stopped in the middle of nowhere, without any cover, the passengers are sitting ducks. They don’t know where they are, why they stopped and whether they will ever move forward again.
Coronavirus is like that. We are on that train, and the train has stopped. Everything has stopped. Around us there is a fertile, luscious field. The field might be a mirage. We are not allowed to touch. One day, we hope, the journey will restart. The train will be moving again. We talk about a return to normal, not knowing when. We don’t know if our destination will look the way we remember it or the way we expect it to look. We think that we communicate, and by the time others hear us, the meaning is garbled. They hear something else.
My wife and I are retired. We don’t worry about returning to work. Under quarantine, our life is not much different from before. We miss seeing friends, going out to dinner or to a show. Our children and grandchildren live far away. We saw them in February and had planned to see them again in July. We have to postpone, because in order to see them, we have to fly.
“It’s not that bad,” I say to my wife. “We are together. Our house is nice. We enjoy each other’s company. We read, write and take walks. We eat healthy and watch television at night. We’ve never seen so many movies, good or bad. Eventually, this will end.”
The other day we decided to push the limit and visited some friends. Another couple, retired like us. We followed the rules. Met on the deck, ten feet apart, with masks covering our faces. Our friends, more prudent than us, wore goggles as well. No hugs, no handshakes, no food, no drinks. We talked. We complained and compared notes. “Our lives have not changed,” we said to each other, all along feeling that something was off. Through the masks we couldn’t see each other’s facial expressions: the lips curling, the nose twitching, the cheeks blushing.
It was all right and it wasn’t. Our messages came out garbled, and after fifty minutes we left.
The train is still stuck.
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