Sunday, April 26, 2020
Hello, and welcome to day #40 of exile… My last “normal” day at work was St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 2020, and I would hesitate to call that a normal day, as we spent most of the day agonizing over whether to remain open or to close… When we finally decided to close the business, I spent most of the afternoon making phone calls to our nearly 300 students, explaining why we chose to close as a preventative measure, and assuring them we would reopen as soon as possible… The recipients of those phone calls were incredibly understanding and appreciative. The battle lines had been drawn: we were focused solely on protecting our staff and our customers. We closed the store that day at 5:30pm, two and a half hours earlier than usual, and that was the last “normal” day.
Forty days ago… Biblical scholars would be quick to point out the significance of the number forty: the great flood from the story of Noah lasted forty days and forty nights; Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai while receiving the ten commandments; the Israelites wandered the desert for forty years; Christ was tempted for forty days and forty nights – the basis for the liturgical season of Lent to this day. The number forty weighs heavily throughout human history.
It is 1:05am on Sunday, April 26, 2020, as I type these thoughts. I should have been in bed asleep hours ago, as I normally have to wake up at 8am to be at the church by 9am for services… Oh, wait… the pastor uploaded his sermon to our shared Google Drive folder before noon on Saturday, and I had the church website updated with the recording before 1:00pm. On any normal Saturday night, I would have practiced my music selections for the Sunday service in my studio, making sure to have all my sheet music prepared and ready to go early tomorrow morning.
Fifty days ago, I remember complaining – mostly to myself – about how long it had been since I had the opportunity to sleep late. Monday through Friday, I woke up early to go to work, as was my usual routine. After work was done, on most weekdays I’d stop at the grocery store on my way home to pick up food to prepare for dinner that evening. After dinner, we had a little time before we went to bed. On Sundays, I’d wake up early, go to church, come home, spend the afternoon working on laundry and taking out the garbage, eat dinner, and eventually go to bed, ready to tackle the next week of my normal routine. But these days, I sleep late every day… as time seems to have lost all meaning.
Now it is Sunday, 1:15am, and I’m sitting in my studio listening to the Pittsburgh Jazz Channel, WZUM, 88.1FM out of Bethany, WV. The signal is much clearer since I followed my dad’s advice on how to construct a basic FM antenna to the proper specifications. Unbeknownst to me, there is a proper ratio of the length of the antenna leads to the frequency of the desired radio station. My dad explained it to me several years ago, and I always meant to get around to working on the project, but I was always so busy working… This past week, when I finally sat down and followed his instructions… wow – the signal is so much clearer and stronger! Oh, sure – I could just as easily load the WZUM website on my computer and listen to the broadcast over the internet, but there’s something so much more organic about plugging a physical antenna into an analog stereo receiver – the same receiver my parents used when I was a child, and have since given to me… nostalgia is a big part of it, but also the simple feeling of accomplishing something.
Now it is 1:30am. The smooth jazz music is still playing through my studio monitors, and I have absolutely no care in the world… no reason to worry about getting up early tomorrow, no fears of oversleeping or neglecting my responsibilities, and absolutely no worries about anything in the world, outside of the “unprecedented, uncertain, unusual, unique, challenging, extraordinary, unparalleled” ongoing global viral pandemic… oh yeah, that thing…
There have been several occasions over the past few weeks where I “broke” the quarantine and ventured outside… I’m a smoker, so I’ve made several trips to the Sheetz store two blocks from my house for cigarettes and soda (my other guilty pleasure)… For the first week or two, the outside world seemed the same as ever. Then a few weeks ago there were posted notices advising only a few customers allowed inside the store at one time. In the past week, I’ve seen both customers and employees wearing face masks, and I’ve felt extremely uncomfortable walking closer than six feet in front of others… clear plastic shields at the checkout counters, markings on the floor showing the proper six feet separation zones…
We’ve been watching the local nightly news reports at 11pm, documenting the number of confirmed cases of the virus county-by-county; details about state and federal responses, presidential press conferences, reports from doctors and scientists and supposed experts… the countless TV commercials seemingly obsessed with these “unprecedented circumstances.” I’m pretty much an expert on all aspects of Liberty Mutual, and also ready to throw a brick through the TV each time I see their commercials. The late night comedy shows featuring “at-home” monologues and interviews are well-intentioned, but so flat and sad without a studio audience laughing when they’re instructed by the in-studio signs…
Welcome to 2:00am. It is raining gently outside, which used to provide me with a sense of comfort and peace… But these days – these seemingly endless and “uncertain” days – all seem to run into each other – there’s no weekend, no break from the usual, no regular schedule followed by brief periods of respite. Now, every day is the same as the day before – bleak, confusing, dark, and often scary…
For me, there have been more than a few sleepless nights – something I’m not ashamed to admit anymore. On the surface, it seems so simple: take care of yourself, your loved ones, your family and friends, and the imminent danger will go away. But so many nights I’ve spent wide awake, unable to sleep, consumed with the darkest fears and worst-case scenarios running through my mind.
I’ve tried to lay low throughout this experience, but I’ve also tried to do what it seems like society thinks I should do. I recorded some “inspirational” videos of myself playing music, posted them on social media, and had a wonderful response. One of my videos even connected me with distant family members I’ve never met, but who were deeply touched by my music and saw reflections of my great grandmother – and I discovered she also played the piano. So there are always new connections being made, even in the midst of tragic and “unprecedented” times.
As I’ve said many times over these past forty days, my biggest fear isn’t the virus itself – I’m truly not that concerned with becoming sick from it. My fear stems from what the virus will do – CAN do – to those around me. I know everyone is doing the best they can, given these circumstances. But regardless of whether any of us becomes sick from this virus, the mindset of everyone has changed to an almost rampant paranoia.
“Let’s reopen everything! The experts are just paranoid and trying to collapse the economy to win the next election! It’s obviously all just a political ploy!” “Let’s stay closed for another 6 months, just to be safe. Fear is the only salvation for society now.”
Schools are not going to reopen this semester. Taxes aren’t due until July. Elections are being postponed or transitioned to mail-in absentee ballots only. The Olympics have been delayed a year. There are no sporting events of any variety currently being held, outside of the Nascar drivers playing X-Box.
And now it is 2:30am, and I am finally tired and ready for bed. I pray for my family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and everyone to remain safe and healthy through these “unprecedented times.” I pray for the fearless people who think they’re immune to illness and are laughing at all of us “scared chickens.” I pray for the countless people who are paralyzed by fear and see nothing but negativity and dread. I pray for the healthcare professionals on the front lines, battling this epidemic, risking their own lives to save others. I pray for the essential workers who don’t get to take forty plus days off from work because their job is too important. I pray for the non-essential workers who, truly, ARE essential, but have been deemed less-than-essential by society.
Hey, cut me some slack… this is my first global pandemic.
Stephan was contacted in April by Kerry Herman, producer of the Australian Directors Guild (ADG) Awards. He agreed to allow the guild to use one of his compositions, “Autumn Twilight,” in their annual awards ceremony. The piece was featured during a memorial segment honoring those directors who have passed away in the last year. The “In Memoriam” segment is below, as well as on the ADG YouTube channel.