That COVID Life

It’s always amazed me how quickly the unthinkable becomes banal. One minute you’re going wherever you want, never giving a thought to whether you’re bringing germs home in your hair; the next you’ve got a crude decontamination airlock in the entryway of your apartment.

As the virus caught hold in NYC and the news got scarier by the day, we devised our own routines to try to stay safe. First and foremost, of course, was DON’T GO OUT. Chad was already working from home; now I would work from home too.

We were used to going to the grocery store almost daily. Now we started drawing up meal plans in two-week blocks so we could shop way ahead. I hate making meal plans. How do I know what I’m going to want for dinner the Thursday after next? But we had to cut back on grocery trips, so we did.

Now when we come home, we take off our clothes and leave them in a little heap in the front hall. Then we take a hot shower and put on clean clothes. I used to wipe my phone down with hand sanitizer too but I’m pretty sure I killed the screen that way, so now I just wipe the case.

Clothes (and my Black Lives Matter sign) hanging out in the front hall

Our beloved super had just given us some lovely tall white bookcases that a tenant left when moving out of the building. We had set them up in the living room but hadn’t yet figured out what to do with the old shelves. Instead of putting them on Freecycle, we pressed them into service in our decontamination center. Mail goes there and sits for three days before being opened. So do non-perishable groceries. Masks and little bottles of hand sanitizer also stay there, so we can grab them on our way out.

The decontamination zone

Chad’s incredibly skilled aunt made us some beautiful masks that we’ve relied on this whole time. Mine have kitties on them.

Kitty mask at the Cloisters

In April the little wine bar around the corner from our place morphed into a food co-op. Now we have a regular Sunday morning slot to get fruits, vegetables, wine and beer, pasta and other staples, so we’ve stopped doing meal plans.

Photo: Tannat

You get a 15-minute timeslot to do your co-op shopping, and you have to wear a mask and wash your hands first thing upon entering. You are the only shopper in the store, so it feels much safer than trying to dodge one’s fellow shoppers in narrow Manhattan supermarket aisles. Owners Will and Sarah have managed to supply us with, among other things, ramps, fiddlehead ferns and tart cherries, so we’re not only eating more safely, we’re eating well!

The Great Day

At the time, March 6 was a great day. I’d taken it off from work to go to court for civil disobedience (having participated in this protest the month before). I wasn’t sure if it would take all day but it ended up being super quick—they herded us all through without ceremony. The only interesting part was that the cop butchered my name so badly on one of my two charges that the judge dropped it, haha.

So there I was in Columbus Circle with the whole day ahead of me. It was cloudy and a bit chilly but not actually raining so I decided to walk to the Met. I’ve had this idea for a while about spending a whole weekday at the Met going on as many tours as possible, back to back, when the museum isn’t very full.

On the way I passed a disturbing statue – bonus art, as it were.

The Met had an amazing curator’s talk for its new exhibit Alien Property. They explained why they exhibited the rubbings of Syrian tablets close to the ground, as people would have seen them at the actual site. They talked about deciding to display a huge statue back-first so you could see how it had been blown apart and reassembled, and how this position also put the statue “in conversation” with some stone lions from a different era.

Afterward I followed some other people over to the American Wing for a second curator talk but 1) it was about furniture, which, meh and 2) I was still on a Syrian tablet high and had no room in my head for new things. (This is, of course, the essential problem with the Day of Tours at the Met idea.) So instead I ran around to see some of my favorites including my beloved girl with strawberries and this gigantic ceramic vessel by David Drake.

I was supposed to meet Chad downtown for an off-Broadway show so there was no sense going home. I decided to stop by the office and send a few emails. Then I hopped on the subway and we had dinner at a Turkish place.

<i>Cambodian Rock Band<i/> production photos

The show, Cambodian Rock Band at the Signature Theater, had been my Christmas gift to Chad. It was pretty great.

We had definitely heard about COVID-19, but it was that brief halcyon moment when it seemed like more of a xenophobic scare tactic. I remember looking around the Met and wondering if it would be empty in a couple of weeks so I could come back and enjoy the art in blissful isolation. I remember talking about it before the performance and wondering if it was a good idea to sit in a big crowd in a theater. But we went anyway.

Now it fills me with both nostalgia and horror to think about that day. All those people crammed in close together, sharing air and moisture and possibly a deadly virus! Will it ever feel normal again?

Day 8: Noooooo!

Cathy and I were on a 9 AM flight so we all got up at the crack of dawn and left the hotel without any porridge. We hit the duty-free for the traditional Irish whiskey sample and of course drank a toast to Ireland. (It was a new blended whiskey called Slainte that was honestly pretty underwhelming — definitely not up to the sky-high standard set by last year’s sample of 15-year Red Breast.)


I also bought a bottle of non-export Connemara Turf Mor whiskey that proved conclusively why you shouldn’t buy non-export whiskey; when Chad and I opened it at home it was thoroughly delicious and we immediately became depressed that we couldn’t buy more.

And then we were home, and Ireland was just a shining memory once more …

Day 7: Birthday Treats

Much as we loved Kilkenny, we wanted to have as much of a day as possible in Dublin, so we packed up first thing, had breakfast at the B and B and set off. We cruised into town around noon and handed the car over to the Merrion staff to park.

Being generally overstuffed, we skipped lunch and headed out in search of a traditional waxed cotton raincoat for Jose. We couldn’t find the shop Beth and Cathy had been to last year so we crossed the river to Arnott’s where we spurned some 350-Euro versions. Then we went around the corner to see the historical exhibit at the General Post Office.

The exhibit opened last year to rave reviews and big crowds, and we could see why. It offers a lively and balanced view of the Easter Rising, incorporating a much wider view of the national and world context than we’d encountered before. They had a great series of video interviews with historians offering different perspectives on the seminal event of Irish independence, including one who drily notes, “Nobody cares about the poor people who were burned in their houses. We only remember the people who were executed, who had their names on a proclamation.” (Two guesses what gender she was.)

We spent at least a couple of hours poring over the exhibits before emerging into the giftshop which was, ironically, packed with the kind of Easter Rising swag that is harder to buy after you’ve been through a thoughtful exhibit that examines all the angles of the Easter Rising.


Afterward we headed back to “our” side of the river for dinner at the Pig’s Ear. On the way we found the coat shop and got a waxed coat for a much more reasonable price.


The Pig’s Ear was delectable — more challenging than the hearty comfort food at Hatch, but delicious and rewarding, with little dollops of intense sauces and surprising curls of pickled things. We got a bit lost afterward going across the river again to the Gate Theatre, and speed-walked the last mile or so to arrive just in time.

We saw Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which has not aged well. Honestly, it was hard to understand how watching a couple bicker and actually beat on each other for two hours could ever have seemed like a fun time. 


When we arrived back at the Merrion, there were roses in the room and champagne on ice for Cathy’s birthday! We toasted to another great trip, and I was tempted to call it a night, but I couldn’t get on the plane the next morning without taking one more trek around the corner to O’Donoghue’s. I had studiously avoided making the success of the trip dependent on getting a chance to play in a seisun — but I wanted a little more time to enjoy real live Irish music.

O’Donoghue’s was packed and while the playing wasn’t quite up to the incredible standards of last year’s crew, it was still very good. I ordered one last Paddy’s and had a brief chat with a young woman in front of the bar — for some reason people always congratulate you when you order whiskey in an Irish pub. The band tore into the Pogues’ Dirty Old Town and I was tempted to join in but I haven’t played that one in a long time. Then they launched into a traditional tune that I know well, although I couldn’t put a finger on the name. I couldn’t help whipping out the whistle and trying to follow along, although I never quite caught up with it.

The players immediately made room for me and the concertina player to my right asked me what tunes I knew. I named the three tunes I’d been practicing and after a brief consultation with the fiddler next to him he said they’d play Lilting Banshee. When the next tune ended he signaled the seisun leader to let me start it. I explained that I’d been to the pub a year ago and loved the music so much I was inspired to take up the whistle. The leader said he remembered me — we had spent a long time with them last year and put a lot of euros in the kitty, so it was a dubious but not inconceivable claim — and that “What happens in O’Donoghue’s stays in O’Donoghue’s.” Come to think of it, we were in O’Donoghue’s. But whatever!


I was so excited/tipsy I blew too hard and started the tune a whole octave too high, but once people joined in I settled down and got through. A tune or so later a guitarist showed up and I gave him my seat. I was surprised to see Cathy in the crowd so we finished our drinks together. Then everyone sang “Fields of Athenry” and the seisun leader took my photo with the concertina player and fiddler, and it was time to go to bed — elated but heavy with the knowledge of what was to come.

Day 6: Up the Cats

The next morning, our last in Cork, I popped out of bed before 8 and went up to the English Market for one last effort to procure tripe and drisheen. Some of the stalls were selling the raw ingredients but no-one had the prepared dish, and the restaurant didn’t start serving it until noon, so with relief and the tiniest pang of regret I gave up the search.

We set off early to get to Kilkenny before noon. I was somewhat alarmed by a sign on the outskirts of town that read “Up the Cats.” But it turns out the Kilkenny Cats are a much-loved hurling team. I immediately wanted a Kilkenny Cats shirt, so as soon as we got settled in at our B and B, we headed downtown.

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We weren’t terribly hungry for lunch after a substantial hotel breakfast so we just got gelato. Beth and Cathy went to tour the local castle, and Beth had an epic climb up a round tower on a staircase that was more like a ladder. I saved my touring energies for the shopping district, where I found two types of Kilkenny Cats shirts — both acceptable but neither outstanding — and some books and other things.


Kilkenny is a charming place and I say so even though the pubs were closed for Good Friday. It has lots of historic buildings — the castle, a couple of stone churches, a prison, etc. — and because it’s not a large city, everything is within easy walking distance. It’s also known as a music town but sadly, many of the pubs were closed for the day so we didn’t get to go out and hear any.

“It’s probably the last year we’ll have that law on Good Friday,” said our B and B host, so at least it was a Historic Moment.

We had fish pie and steak pie for dinner, went back to the B and B and read books about Ireland from the excellent collection in the drawing room.

Day 5: The Legend of Tripe and Drisheen

We had all of day 5 to spend in Cork, so we slept in and had a late breakfast at the hotel. The porridge was somewhat inferior to the Merrion’s, being a little too smooth — Beth thought perhaps the Merrion stirred theirs with a spurtle, which is why it ends up having delicious small lumps — but they had a tasty fresh rhubarb compote that more than made up for the difference. Then we set out to the English Market, one of Ireland’s most famous markets. 


The English Market has been around since 1788, and it’s a foodie paradise. Choosing just a few cheeses from the huge counter was a challenge. We ended up getting some blue cheese, sheep’s cheese with fenugreek and goat cheese with fresh thyme and honey, along with some rolls called baps.

In my preparations for this trip I had become somewhat fixated on a dish called tripe and drisheen, which, honestly, sounds kind of terrible but is the food traditionally most associated with Cork City. Drisheen is a blood sausage “with a gelatinous consistency,” according to Wikipedia. Tripe is, well, tripe. Marry them in a milk sauce and you have tripe and drisheen. A restaurant upstairs at the market sells it but, having just had breakfast, I just wasn’t up for it. So we crossed the river to the high ground of north Cork and our next stop.


The Butter Museum does a thoroughly entertaining job of examining Irish history through a lens of butter, as it were. It reaches all the way back to the days of clan rule, when cattle-stealing was a revered leadership skill. Raids were so routine that it wasn’t unusual for someone to have their own cattle stolen while they were off stealing someone else’s.

Meanwhile, farm life revolved around the routines of milking, separating, and churning. The cream often sat out for a few days until the farm wife had enough to churn, so the butter would have had a fermented flavor and was heavily salted for preservation. There was all kinds of local folklore about fairies and demons who would steal or spoil the butter, so people often kept a donkey shoe under the churn to scare off supernatural beings. There are also some hair-raising stories about using a dead person’s hand to churn the butter, for the same purpose.


Naturally the museum had a pot of bog butter on display.

Feeling fact-crammed again, we decided to take the train to the coast at Cobh and just wander around. At the visitor center next to the station we ate the cheese and baps, all of which were delicious, and then set off on foot.

Cobh is famous as the last stop made by the Titanic before it went down. It’s also the place survivors and many bodies were taken after the Lusitania was torpedoed off the Irish coast, bringing the US into World War I. We walked to the opposite end of town and wound up at the Titanic Memorial Garden, which honors the victims of both disasters. It was nice to sit in the sun for a while, watching ships come and go.


Walking back through the city, we stopped to examine dozens of pub and restaurant menus but failed to find a single place serving tripe and drisheen. It seems even Cork residents enjoy the dish more in theory than in practice. Eventually we got back to the hotel restaurant and ordered some soup — nobody was very hungry after all that cheese and bread. I splurged on a glass of the Midleton Very Rare, a whiskey that is always Very Expensive. It was delectable — perhaps one of the few whiskeys that could vie with 12 Year Red Breast for my heart.

Day 4: Cashel and Cork

My first Day 4 post got so long I just couldn’t go on writing, so here is an addendum. After Donaghmore we got back in the car, heading once again for Cork. But we saw Cashel on the highway signs and Beth remembered there was a big castle there, so we exited once again to take a look.

Photo: Wikipedia

The Rock of Cashel is so huge I didn’t even bother trying to fit it all into a cameraphone photo. The castle sits on a giant rock — hence the name — on a hilltop, where castles tended to be built for defensive purposes. Donated to the church in 1100, it was in active use through the middle of the 18th century, and is more elaborate than the complex at Trim.

It’s hard to express the enormity of the place but this photo of Beth taking a picture of some fellow tourists will give you some idea.


We didn’t take a tour this time; we just strolled through, looking at carvings and playing “name that saint,” a game Cathy always wins.


In the very last room, just before we got in the car, we saw this marvel. It had no label or explanatory plaque at all. I have no idea who she is (I assume it’s a she but who knows?). Nonetheless, I love her. Like, stone-head-at-the-Archeology-Museum levels of love.

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Just look at that face!


Finally we got back in the car and drove on to Cork, where, after going through several hundred roundabouts and getting lost on exceedingly narrow one-way streets once or twice, we finally arrived at the River Lee Hotel. It had a lovely view of Cork from the glass elevator.

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Tired and fact-crammed, we wandered downtown and had mussels, duck confit and a salad with beets and local cheese at a lovely place called Jacques. We spent much of the meal writing the screenplay for a fictionalized movie about the Dutch-Irish bog preservation effort, “The Bog in our Hearts,” starring Liam Neeson and Angelina Jolie. Don’t quote me, but I think we’ve got an Oscar-winner in the making.

Day 4: Our Guerilla Past

As we sat down to an Irish breakfast at the B and B in Trim, the male half of the couple that ran the place came in and began to chat. He told us he’d worked in intelligence and lived in all sorts of interesting places around the world. When we mentioned we had ancestors in Derrykerrib, Fermanagh, his eyes lit up.

“Oh, your people were IRA!” he said. “Back when I was just getting started, I was working around there and you couldn’t go to Derrykerrib — it was too dangerous.”

This made sense since Derrykerrib is right on the border and we’d heard rumors that our forerunners were involved in gun-running. Our grandfather, who came from that side of the family, had initially wanted to join with Germany and Austria-Hungary to fight against the English in World War One (he was persuaded to sign up with the Allies instead).

“Go hang around in Derrykerrib for a few days and talk to people,” our host advised. “I’m sure you’ll turn up some who remember your ancestors.”

Much like the ending of a summer blockbuster, this immediately laid the groundwork for Ireland Trip III — coming soon to a Boeing 747 near you!

After breakfast we hit the road to Cork by way of Donaghmore, where there’s an old workhouse that’s been converted into a museum. As we were driving through jewel-green fields edged by hedgerows, we began to see more and more bogs. We had become fascinated with bogs on last year’s trip so Cathy randomly googled “Visit bog ireland” and up popped the Bog of Allen Nature Center, just a few kilometers ahead!

“In the heart of the bog and with bogs in our hearts.”

The nature center, which doubles as the headquarters of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council, was excellent. It told the history of peat in Ireland, including its longstanding use as a fuel, which is bad news for the planet because peat is extremely rich in carbon so burning it accelerates climate change. It also described the alliance between the Netherlands and Ireland to preserve bogs. That partnership began when a Dutch bog scientist realized all the peatlands in his country were too compromised to be useful objects of study. He began an initiative to buy bogs in Ireland, where they were still plentiful, and give them to the government to preserve, while also educating the public about the importance of peatlands.


Out back was a lovely demonstration garden showcasing ways to cultivate plants without using peat. And there the nice woman in charge of the place served us tea.


Thus fortified we hit the road to Donaghmore, which turned out to be a handsome but melancholy place — not surprisingly, since it was a destination of last resort for impoverished, starving people. The famine-era Irish workhouse model seems like it went out of its way to be cruel. Families were separated, often for good. Your clothes were taken away and you were given a ragged uniform to wear. Work was compulsory because even though you’d been starved off your farmland, the assumption was that you were lazy.


As we stood looking out the window of the former girls’ dormitory, it was easy to imagine gazing out as an inmate and wishing you were somewhere else.

Most of the upstairs rooms were empty but one of them had a mannequin in it which scared the living daylights out of me.


It was an unquestionably tragic place. Many people died in these institutions, and others were scarred for life. But as I wandered through the quiet halls, I couldn’t help but question whether people 100 years from now would be walking through reproductions of homeless shelters, marveling at the cruelty. In present-day shelters, families may be separated, healthy people are often forced to share space with those suffering from severe untreated mental illnesses, substance abuse is rampant, and physical and sexual abuse is common. At least the poorhouse was a permanent living space, whereas most shelters demand that you leave in the morning because they’re only open overnight. In the judgment of history, I’m not convinced we will look any better than our Victorian counterparts.

The workhouse was closed in 1886. Decades later, a dairy cooperative took over the property. Thus, it is also an agricultural museum with lots of antique farming equipment that is hypnotically beautiful to look at. Take, for example, the hay-bogey, used to drag loads of hay in from the fields.


Sometimes the labels on the machinery were less than helpful, which made us laugh.


Day 3: Towers, Ruins, Etc.

Beth had done a fabulous job of driving last year on the one day we rented a car, so this year we planned to drive the whole time. While we felt a little regretful about the environmental impact, and about not being able to buy oatie biscuits and Barry’s Tea from the tea cart on the train, the car is so much more flexible and enhances one’s ability to wander.

So after a round of delicious Merrion oat porridge with stewed fruit, brown bread and most important, TEA, we went to the airport, picked up the car and set off for Newgrange.

Newgrange is an ancient mound with interior passages, built around 5,000 years ago in a beautifully green swathe of Irish countryside.


The first thing you notice is the exterior wall — reconstructed, of course, so you can’t be sure of how it originally looked — but as best they figure it had this lovely pattern of white rock punctuated by round black rocks that stick out.

The entrance is guarded by this long rock with carvings of spirals. This apparently helped protect it from looting over the years as people were afraid to cross the rock and run afoul of whatever supernatural being(s) they feared — God, gods, spirits.


You have to be on an official tour to enter the structure. You can only go in for ten minutes and photos are forbidden, which was kind of a relief because it means you’re wholly undistracted. You have to squeeze through a narrow stone passage before popping out into the interior room. It’s decorated with more spirals as well as diamond and triangle shapes. After we had a good look around, the tour guide arranged us expertly by height so we could all see, and then turned off the lights and turned on a simulated beam that shot into the room through a special window over the entrance. This is how light enters the interior during the winter solstice. It gave me goosebumps.


We had lunch at the surprisingly delicious museum cafeteria, including some Junk Food of the Week-worthy Roast Beef and Irish Stout potato chips. They didn’t taste very much like roast beef or stout to me, but they were pleasantly spicy.


We debated side trips to various stone towers, ruins etc. but finally decided to just drive on to our destination for the night: the old walled and castled city of Trim.


The castle was built in the 1100s and used through the 1600s but it never really got a makeover, so it’s a fairly pure example of Norman architecture. We took a tour through the rooms and imagined toughing it out in a stone building on this windswept hilltop without central heating or plumbing. The tour guide showed us a grate-covered hole in the corner of the master bedroom where the ruler would allegedly pass solid waste. Said waste fell down the exterior of the castle, and its healthy color was meant as a warning to would-be attackers that the big guy was well-fed and strong.


Afterward we went to our B & B and tried to warm up, but we couldn’t. It was freezing at the castle and cold in town and cold in our room and just cold, cold, cold. Finally we drove back into town to the Trim Castle Hotel and had a drink and a plate of local cheeses and meats in the bar. We looked out at the castle, which is lit up at night, and at last we got warm enough to go home and go to bed.

Day 2: Vikings and Catacombs

On Day 2, Monday, Beth was due to arrive in the morning. Cathy and I took a walk around Merrion Park, which was lovely, then awaited her in the drawing room in front of the fire. We went off to the Yeats exhibit at the National Library, which Beth had seen last year, while she supplemented her meagre plane sleep with a nap.

The Yeats exhibit is pretty great. They have audio of him intoning “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in singsong tones, which will ring in my ears for a while, and they do a pretty good job of untangling his love life — no mean feat. I hadn’t read Yeats in an organized way in a long time and I felt a little swoony reading/hearing his spare and beautiful language again:

No Second Troy

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
Then we went back to the Merrion and picked up Beth and went to lunch at Hatch, which was as wonderful as ever.
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We decided to go to the catacombs at Christ Church Cathedral so we set out in a meander-y way, seeing and losing and seeing and losing the spire as we navigated the twisty streets. When we arrived we noticed Dublinia Museum across the way and decided to check it out. This turned out to be an excellent idea because it’s a really fun museum, interactive and kid-friendly, that does a great job of describing Dublin’s early history. For instance, I didn’t know that most Vikings were farmers who only marauded in the offseason, or that their empire of looting gradually transformed into an empire of trading as their networks became more sophisticated. Most important, we got to dress up as Vikings.


The catacombs were a little disappointing, to be honest. They were very clean, well-let and well-organized, and even boasted their own gift shop. Instead of bones and skulls they mostly displayed the opulent swag the church collected at the expense of the people. The only thing that saved them, and it took a long time to find it, was the display case featuring the mummified bodies of a cat and rat — known locally, of course, as Tom and Jerry.


We wanted to get up early so we grabbed a light dinner at McGrattan’s pub and went to bed.