Given the prominence in the news of cruise ships filled with sick people, it’s a perverse metaphor. But it’s what so many of my students, friends, and relatives tell me they’re feeling. We’re all trapped for the moment in a lockdown forged of public recommendations, conscience, and fear. Life in my cabin looks like this: I share 1600 square feet of space — capacious by some measures — with my wife and two boys, 11 and eight. We’re home-schooling them, which means that one Zoom session wafts in from their room, another from the living room, while my wife is online working in the kitchen or the porch, and I’m teaching or writing from our office/spare room/catch-all space, with its yoga mats, foldout couch, piles of detritus, and two desks. At least the door closes, so that I have a cabin within the cabin. When my son has his trumpet lesson, he commandeers the office and I move to the kitchen or bedroom or porch. When my wife has a work call, she takes this space. Piano drifts in, along with kitchen sounds, the cloying pings of video games, and the overloud clips of the kids giving answers to their virtual teachers. Talking to machines changes the human animal. I imagine the entire species is caught inside one of those videos where a cat watches a cat on a screen, turning its head just so, occasionally lunging, in a doomed bid to comprehend what it sees.
I leave my sub-cabin frequently. My sons’ calls: “Dad….Can you explain fractions?” “Dad…How do I write a postcard?” “Dad…I can’t find any information on the Salem Witch Trials.” “Dad…I can’t do it!” “Dad…what is onomatopoeia?” Buzz. Whirl. Snap! Eat.
The lockdown came in stages. The first week or so, I could still go to my office. Wurster Hall was empty. With the half-measures piling up, I knew my time was limited and I worked like mad to get the chapters of a book I’m writing in order. What a gloriously creative moment. With time and space rapidly closing down on me, I made big decisions I had been putting off, finished drafts, jettisoned verbiage like the brown outer leaves of a cabbage. Old words make good compost for new ones. When the full lockdown came and I entered the cabin, I turned to editing. It’s easier to do in fragments. I occasionally get in an hour, but mostly I’m writing in two- to 10-minute bursts.
I broke down last week and needed bread. Not frozen bread. I left the cabin, with gloves and mask, and walked to Acme Bread Company, where I joined the line of people standing scrupulously six feet apart. The first person in the line opened the door with his bare hand and then wiped something from his nose and mouth. The woman in front of me must have felt my dread. She turned around and gave me what I thought was a sympathetic look. “We’re doomed,” I said, flatly. “Oh, I don’t believe in any of this,” she said. “I think the government is controlling it all.” Our government? What government? Control is the operative word. That is what we have lost, even inside our own cabins. Control over our space and time, and, because everything happens in space and time, control over our words. When and where we form them changes them. My book will be different.
But there is hope — and I don’t say this out of some wish to leave this essay on a positive note. This cabin of limitations gets us closer to Thoreau — who sought out his cabin! — to throwing the excess overboard and going to the quick of it all. Oh, I’m not thinking of some Marie Kondo-ing of the mind or a Miesian less-is-more, even less a transcendental meditation on simplicity. I’m thinking about fragments. For years, our machines have been transforming our words, narrowing their gauge. 140 characters is the measure of this presidency, whose actions have prolonged our cabin stay. More and more words, in tinier bursts, saying less and less. Now the pure limitations of time and space have compressed our range of logo-motion. In our cabins, they become precious again. Unlike the cat in front of the screen, we can move the world with words.
— Andrew M. Shanken, acting director, Art of Writing; professor and acting vice chair, Architecture; American Studies, Berkeley, CA