Dear Diary: February Lockdown & the Brief Resurrection of Joy
Updated: Feb 17
A few days ago, the situation in the Netherlands looked like this:
Infection curve: flaccidly bulging or bulgingly flaccid, your choice. Either way, an unpleasant shape.
Projected future—Ominous. And it’s mutating. Do you see this? It looks like tentacles!
Speed of the vaccination campaign—For some reason I have to think of the fact that glass is a very, very, very inert liquid.
Schools—open, but in a dystopian “human contact is lethal, stay within your assigned pod, and, if you can: stop breathing” kind of way.
Joy—by consensus is now assigned the label of a dead concept, the way Latin is a dead language. In analogy to the former Roman Empire, people who used to “feel joy” probably couldn’t imagine in their wildest dreams that it would all be in ruins at some point in the future, and yet, here we are.
Curfew—pointlessly established. Simply put: where would anyone go after 9 PM, anyway?
Riots—the inevitable response to the curfew.
Freedom Fighter/”La Résistance Lives On”—rhetoric greeting the riots: why, of course.
“Rioting scum! CALL IN THE TANKS!!!!” counter-rhetoric: Inevitable.
The riots stopped after about 1,5 days. People are tired. There were no tanks, the destroyed shopping windows and pianos were repaired, and we all returned to...
Then came the snow. And the ice. And winter. And joy. Maybe joy isn’t dead. Maybe it’s like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. It likes low temperatures. The lower the better.
The movies showing people, both naked and dressed, skating on Dutch canals before breaking through the ice and being rescued by onlookers using sticks, chairs and other implements, have traveled the globe by now. I don’t have a lot to add.
We went to the park close to our house so Floris could glide down one of the hills on a borrowed sleigh. We don’t own a sleigh. Why would we, in the age of global warming? Thankfully, our neighbors, who raised their three now-grown-up kids in better days, kept one in reserve.
The entire neighborhood was in the park. Children packed in snowsuits, or not, stalked up the hills and glided down with wild screams of joy. At the foot of the favorite hill wound a narrow trail, and right behind the barely frozen pond sat waiting. A single tree served as an emergency stop. A few times, parents threw themselves in front of the racing sleighs to prevent a splash no one would really have minded.
Every face I saw was shining. Eyes twice their normal size were glowing, nearly unhinged with back-from-the-dead joy. I’ve never seen Floris’s face so pink, saw him go from super-careful brakeman to reckless flyboy in such a short span of time.
Children descended on sleighs, plastic lids, plastic bags, pieces of carton, or they just threw themselves into the snow like tragically dying stage extras and tumbled down. Some formed constellations, clusters of snow-glide vehicles, connected by the grip of their hands.
A little later, the students came. Came from their tiny rooms in houses they share, or from tiny rooms in box-like student flats. From our home office, Niels is “teaching” them. He does this by talking to a screen, hoping they're out there somewhere, but never knowing for sure who is there to listen, and who has understood, really understood. Research shows they’re increasingly depressed and lonely. They’ve been maligned as super spreaders for wanting to spend time together. And here they came, and they wore sneakers and no socks, or the kind of cutesie winter boots that don’t do a thing in actual winter. And they wore loose-fitting hoodies, and oversized coats, and floor-length scarves, and giant knitted caps with pom-poms on top. And they brought sleighs, yes, and also inflatable beach floats. And they went at it.
Children and students mixed. Two students on a giant dolphin raced collided with intertwined toddlers, used them as a kind of ramp, got into a spin, hit the tree sideways. Glee and laughter all around. Two student girls sat on a sleigh barely big enough for the two of them thundered down and screamed “I actually don’t know how to do thiiiiiiiis AAAAAAAAH” while people jumped aside right and left.
“Corona-proof”? Don’t make me laugh. Well, it’s not as if people were coughing into each other’s throat. I had a good buffer of space around me. And anyway, it’s well known that generous doses of joy are good for the immune system.
The next day, Floris went back for more, together with friends. Hot chocolate was had, sold by a probably semi-legal cart swooping in and out of the park, and he came home with blue lips and red hands, and screamed when I de-thawed his fingers under tepid running tap water. An essential childhood memory.
On later days, the ponds were frozen, and people started skating. The ice was really bad. As a German, I didn’t last. The fear was strong. We observed a group of five male students on the ice. All of them were thin, not very tall, white, their hair the same unfortunate length halfway down the neck and “styled” by adding grease. Jackets probably given to them by their mom or dad when they moved out. “You need a decent coat, son.” And it did its job as they made their way home from many a long weekend that had started on Thursday and lasted until Monday morning, half past ten, perhaps in a class taught by Niels in the flesh, way back when, in another era.
Now they were playing a game. They’d brought empty beer crates and placed one of them a little further back. This, as far as I could tell, was “the target.” The goal of the game was to hit it by sliding other empty beer crates in its direction.
The group was not only sliding beer crates, but also singing and dancing and making general sounds and movements indicating the presence of joy. They also drank beer. This is completely normal in the park close to where we live, and not a sign of depravity or urban strife.
As I came closer, I heard the music coming from a portable speaker one of them had hung on a barren tree branch. The speaker was about as large as a good-sized sugar beet. The song was simple enough: the kind of stomping carnivalesque dance number you hear at a fair, when people scream as the safety hinges unlock at the climax of the centripetal force ride.
The song also had lyrics. They went something like this: “Neukeneukeneukeneuken...” which translates to “fuckingfuckingfuckingfucking”...
A little crude, maybe. But suppose these young men are heterosexual. Let’s also assume (not a terrible leap of the imagination, really) that they were all single when corona came to town. Our final assumption: they’re basically nice and altruistic and keep to their <housemates> pod, to flatten the curve.
This means they spent almost a year in the company of beer crate bowling buddies who don’t do anything for them sexually. If that is true, then maybe oomp-oomp-oomp-tchk-tchk-fuckingfuckingfucking is their only possible state of mind.
If there is mercy, they’ve stopped noticing.
I could wrap up this report by talking about today, when it was ten degrees warmer, and the park is a sludge of mud and dog shit and cigarette stubs and laughing gas balloons, and Floris was sad because the snow was gone, and when I said, “it’ll come back next winter” he said, “but the planet is warming up,” but who needs it.