Sheltering in place: ‘Anxiety Baking,’ the Complete Works of Henry James and a whole day with a can of Pledge

Author Henry James, 1843-1916. Credit: The Free Library

Well, it’s been a quiet week in Tallahassee, Florida, my hometown, out here on the edge of the swamp.

Except, of course, for a few ugly scenes in the toilet paper aisle of the Lake Ella Publix and that unseemly tussle over the last package of spinach and chive linguini left in Trader Joe’s.

(Hey, I saw it first!).

The Florida legislature’s finally left town, which should mean that you could get a table at Kool Beanz or Sage, except for the inconvenient fact that they’re closed for everything except take-out. Our college campuses are locked up; our schools on hiatus; pillars of our culture–churches, libraries, bars, Bed, Bath, & Beyond–shut.

But it’s not all doom, gloom and apocalypse. Sheltering in place should be an opportunity to, say, expand your mind, maybe tackle a new language.

Welsh, for example.

You and the whole socially-distanced family can have fun learning this ancient, beautiful, and consonant-rich tongue.

Helps pass the time, too: you need four words just to say“please” in Welsh (“os gwelch un dda”).

And what about reading some of those books you always meant to get around to?

Here are a few apropos titles: Geraldine Brooks’s novel Year of Wonders, about a self-quarantining English village in 1666; A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe; The Plague by Albert Camus; and Boccaccio’s Decameron.

If those titles are too on the nose, there are always alternate universes. Flying witches? Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials books.  Flying bears? Borne by Jeff VanderMeer.

I think I’ll work my way through the Complete Works of Henry James, because nothing takes you away from obsessing over hand-sanitizer like contemplating emotional betrayal in large, well-staffed country houses.

And when I get tired of complex syntax, I hit the interwebs for pro tips on platitudes.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (or Harry and Meghan, if you’re an Us magazine reader), offer inspirational Instagram messages like, “Our willingness, as a people, to step up in the face of what we are all experiencing with COVID-19 is awe-inspiring” and “how we approach each other and our communities with empathy and kindness is indisputably important right now.”

That is some deep stuff, y’all.

But what if you don’t want deep stuff from royals? What if you just want jewelry? Check out the great Tiara Tournament and vote online: the Greville Emerald Kokoshnik vs. the Aquamarine Pineflower, the Oriental Circlet vs. the Teck Turquoises.

Don’t know about you, but when I run out of gems to drool over, I go for kittens. You can vote for your faves on kittenwar.com: Piffu or Moo; Devery Jebediah or Tiger-lilly; Bitsy or Joe Dirt.

Don’t spend all your quarantine time in front of a screen. How about pursuing the domestic arts?

Dusting! I whiled away a whole day with a can of Pledge and an old cloth diaper (possibly one I wore back in the day: we’re big on comprehensive archiving at the Roberts ancestral manse), rubbing down everything that didn’t run away.

Actually, the cat tried to run away, but I cornered him, and now his fur is extra shiny, and he smells lemony-fresh.

Then there’s what the hipsters call “Anxiety Baking,” whipping up confections to distract yourself from Donald Trump’s deranged daily briefings and the existential dread of running out of Purell.

So far, I’ve made a blood orange polenta pound cake with brown butter Bourbon drizzle, a kale, prosciutto, and dandelion-leaf quiche, six loaves of Vidalia onion cheddar bread, three dozen raspberry rosewater scones, a couple of dark chocolate Kahlua pies, and a batch of sour cream-pistachio Xanax brownies.

I’m feeling pretty damn fine.

Obviously, we can’t merely binge-eat our way out of this crisis.

Drinking also plays an important part.

Try this: Stash a different cocktail in every room, maybe with a little bowl of nuts, and create your own in-home bar crawl.

No drunk-driving. No inappropriate hook-ups.

Still, go wash your hands. You don’t know where you’ve been.

Really: go wash your hands.

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.