Today I ventured outside and drove through an empty town to buy a few groceries and some wine. It looked like it would at Christmas, except this isn’t Christmas. There’s no snow on the ground, no one’s singing carols and most of us are in semi-quarantine. This isn’t a peace-on-earth silence. It’s an anxious one, like there’s just been an air-raid warning and we’re all waiting for the Blitz to happen. When will it arrive and what will it leave behind?

Inside our homes it’s a different scene altogether.

Families are hunkered over TV and computer screens looking for information or distraction, or connecting with friends across the country and around the world. Kids are home from school and university until further notice. Same with parents who are either working from home or waiting for further details of a bailout package so they can meet their monthly payments.

Our Prime Minister steps out of self-isolation briefly each day to address the nation, while MPs connect with their constituents and conduct the business of governing by Skype, Whatsapp, Instagram and email.

The air is filled with the miracle of technological communication like never before, and how incredibly grateful we are to have it. Because the air is also filled with something else that we’d rather not think about too much, having little control over it.

That’s the other great thing about our devices. They give us the feeling of being in control of something. We don’t even have to click or swipe much anymore because a word to Siri or Alexa will ensure that it gets done.

We’re told our “social universe” doubles in size every two years and will hit 44 trillion gigabytes this year. Emails are projected to reach over 300 billion in number.

One hundred and eighty eight million Snapchat users upload 48,000 photos every day. We Tweet at a rate of 6,000 times a second—that’s 500 million times a day and over 200 billion times a year. Facebook messages total one billion per day, while Instagram users number one billion every month. LinkedIn has 347 million members who view each other nearly 20,000 times a minute.

And then there’s the dating site, Zoosk. Its membership of 50 million singles exchange three million messages a day. Its rival, Tinder, records 695,000 swipes every minute. That’s a lot of singles looking to connect with someone. And they’re in a hurry. If you’re a man looking for a female partner Tinder advises you that “women take about 1/10th of a second to form an opinion of you based on your photograph. That’s literally a split second decision to swipe left or right.”

But the numbers might have plummeted with the stock market prices for the time being, because no one in their right mind is looking for a date.

(Two years ago, long before the pandemic, the UK government under Theresa May appointed a Minister of Loneliness. Like enough of us had already self-isolated in some vital way and were now desperate to emerge again, but weren’t really sure how to do it.)

Anyway, I went to my local grocery store, wearing those cellophane gloves to ward off infection—either getting it or giving it. There were signs up advising customers that purchases of essentials like bread, milk and eggs were limited to single items. Remarkably the store’s hours would be extended, not reduced. There was even toilet paper.

And chocolates. I bought two boxes and after they were rung through I said to Pam, the cashier, that the chocolates were for the staff. I’ve known them for seven years now, and we’ve always exchanged pleasantries and stories at the counter. Several of them have read my novels and we’ve spoken about those as well. I wanted them to know how much I appreciated their continued hard work and cheerful demeanour while feverishly restocking shelves that many customers had feverishly emptied.

It was a small gesture but I thought Pam was going to burst into tears when I handed her the chocolates. I had no idea of the effect it would have. Thank you, she said, and held up the chocolates for the others to see. They waved and smiled their thank you’s.

Pam’s a Leafs fan, and I an ardent Habs supporter. Our rivalry at the checkout counter was always good-natured but now with the hockey season likely over we just talk about the plague and what it means to retail staff like herself. Even that happens quickly because lingering is not a good idea right now.

I’ve noticed that Facebook posts seem less critical on the one hand now, and more indignantly righteous on the other. People seem to be more sensitive to others’ feelings, not knowing who’s suffering what during this time of crisis. Rob Ford just complimented Justin Trudeau on his leadership, and federal parties are being almost civil to each other while working together on a way forward. The Metropolitan Opera in New York provides free streaming of one of its previously performed, great shows each evening, although the Met itself has closed, like all centres of entertainment.

Watching the cast of La Traviata assemble onstage to take their bows at the end, hugging and kissing each other before a vast audience on their feet and cheering is a poignant reminder of how normal life was a short time ago.

My neighbour arrived on my doorstep the other evening with a bottle of red wine, and her home-baked chocolate chip cookies and bran muffins. Another neighbour knocked on the door this morning to say that if there’s anything we need (I live with my 94-year-old mother, and neither of us can afford to become infected) he will provide. When I was a kid I used to watch his grandfather play for the Hamilton Ti-Cats and had the pleasure of finally meeting Angelo Mosca at our annual street party a couple of years ago.

Apart from that street party, I rarely see my neighbours. Their kids are often outside playing basketball or street hockey or just cycling to the circle and back, but you generally get an opportunity to wave to their parents when everyone’s out mowing the lawn or shoveling the driveway. Self-isolation was kind of always there, now it’s mandatory.

But it’s still apparent that a revived sense of kindness is around us, and even in cyberspace it seems real enough and not just virtual. It’s a good feeling, given the dire forecasts in these times of great anxiety.

Forty years ago I clipped out an article by London Times columnist Bernard Levin entitled, “The Questions Machines Cannot Answer.” I kept the piece because it resonated somehow and sounded prescient, even though the “machines” themselves back then were primitive and clunky.

He ended by saying although the microelectronic technological revolution may usher in a paradise upon earth, it will likely do so with the serpent already in residence. The silicon chip will transform everything, except everything that matters, and the rest will still be up to us.

Back then, I didn’t know a silicon chip from a potato chip, but what he meant by “the rest will still be up to us” remains unchanged: knowing ourselves, and understanding our relation to the universe and the meaning of our journey through life.

What he meant by the serpent is anyone’s guess: the loss of privacy? Isolation? A virus we have no defence against?

In the meantime, we still have ourselves to answer for while we are left to our own “devices.”

May we return to normal times sooner than later.


The Pet Shop Boys, left to their own devices: