A year has passed since that spooky night, March 11, 2020, when the NBA suspended its season just before tipoff of a Jazz-Thunder game, and Tom Hanks announced he had COVID-19. That’s not exactly when everything shut down, but when I think back on this interminable period of mask-wearing and confinement and dread, I think of that night as the beginning of it: the moment when it became clear that the upheaval I’d been warned was coming had arrived, and daily life was going to be very sharply different for a while.
My family is very fortunate not to have been touched more directly by the pandemic than through the myriad inconveniences and hardships of avoiding it. No one I know personally has been seriously sickened by coronavirus. My kids haven’t returned to in-person school yet, but I’m mostly glad to have them around. I didn’t even have a job back when everybody else had to stop going to theirs; the one I have now I’d be doing from home even if we had an office, and even if it could safely be opened. (Relatedly, though things are still quite dicey for us, my family are in the very small cohort of Americans who have less financial insecurity than at this time last year.) And I was already somebody who mostly didn’t go many places, who mostly avoided crowds, who didn’t dine out much or go to bars; on a day-to-day basis, the biggest practical difference between my pre- and post-pandemic life is that I wear two masks when I go to the grocery store now. That, and that I am going absolutely fucking crazy.
This has rather famously been The Year Of Trying Out Weird Hermit Fascinations, for me and possibly for you and certainly for huge numbers of others, stranded in our homes and cut off from spontaneity and caprice, even in purely conceptual form, and casting around madly for how to get out of time’s way so that it can hurry past. People never before the least bit curious about bread-making have found themselves nurturing sourdough starters with more care than they give to their own bodies. Personally I cannot even remember all of the weird hobbies I have attempted to take up over the past 12 months, because my brain has dissolved. But the ones I could recall, I have ranked below, from best to worst.
1. Going for hikes
The dogs don’t really need to go for dedicated walks: They spend half their time tearing ass around the hillside, and a 15-minute obedience refresher session is enough to wipe them out for hours. But it was spring and school was closed and everything felt acutely disabled and the humans were going stir-crazy, so my kids and I started taking the dogs, in pairs—the boxers one day, the mutts the next, and so on—down to a local soccer-field-type park to walk for a couple of miles, to burn off our own anxious energy and get away from the temptation to stare at screens. We could have just walked around the neighborhood—it would have saved gas, I guess—but going somewhere else transformed it into, you know, going somewhere, at a time when we could not actually go anywhere.
After a few weeks this turned into hikes on the twisty, surprising mountainside trails at a more nature-preserve-type park a 10-minute drive away, with dense forest and cool shade and rocks to clamber over, a better arrangement all around. This sustained us, meagerly at times, through a weird, bad, broke summer, the second in a row without anything even resembling a family vacation. Just a minor adventure, once a day, in a pretty green place broadly unchanged by the collapse of society happening all around. I recommend it.
2. Nail polish
As a practical matter, painted fingernails turn out not to be all that compatible with, uh, me, a nail-biting, shaky-handed, ADHD slob never more than 10 minutes away from washing a sink full of dishes or creating a sink full of dishes. I can’t paint my own nails without also painting basically my entire arm, and I generally can’t maintain a freshly painted set of nails even long enough for them to dry. But my wife and a family pandemic-pod-mate were painting their nails on Saturday afternoons last summer, and then they’d be done and there would still be a pandemic going on outside, and all these pretty little jars of nail polish colors just sitting there, and, what the hell, my ragged disgusting knobby fingers deserve to look fancy, too. Or maybe they don’t, but getting them painted would consume a solid 15 minutes, and then they’d look fancy for as long as I could avoid the impulse to chew them or accidentally hack any of them off with a kitchen knife.
I favor hilariously garish shades of pink, with as much iridescence and glitter and shit as you can cram on there. Make my hands look like a party!
3. Making ice cream
I mentioned this in our How We Coped With Quarantine blog back at the beginning of the year: My big sister unexpectedly came by a surplus ice-cream machine and gifted it to me, and I became an ice-cream tinkerer. It didn’t require a lot of heavy logistics: My kitchen pretty steadily has sugar and egg and fatty milk or cream in it, the ingredients of the base I use, and you can really get a lot of mileage out of little bottles of various flavor extracts.
This is a good hobby! Especially because, within reasonable limits, you pretty much can’t fuck it up: Even a disappointing batch of ice cream is still cold and sweet and creamy, even if it’s more like soup. For months I was making ice cream once or twice a week. I couldn’t take the kids to the cute little ice cream parlor in town, so I’d solicit their opinions on what kind of ice cream to make at home, and that was almost as exciting. I learned that the secret ingredient to a really kick-ass cookies-and-cream is salt, and that if you really want to jam your ice cream full of crushed Oreos or peanut butter cups or fudge or whatever, the move is to freeze that stuff separately, in advance, then fold into the finished ice cream very quickly in the 20 seconds or so between when the ice cream machine finishes its work and when you jam the finished product into the freezer. I also learned that making ice cream once or twice a week for months, during a period otherwise largely characterized by physical stillness, is like hopping aboard a maglev train speeding directly toward the grave. I haven’t made ice cream since, like, September. It was fun while it lasted.
4. Making pizza
This was a Saturday thing for a couple of months. The nice grocery store near me has pretty frozen balls of pretty good pizza dough, and we’d whip up freakish nightmare pizzas bearing tons of toppings.
At first we were cooking them on the big charcoal kettle, right on the grill, a thrilling and terrifying high-wire act that ultimately maybe includes just a tad too much risk of dropping or incinerating a lot of ingredients. Also it was getting into the part of the year when the sun goes down early, and trying to cook a pizza you can barely see—or one illuminated by wobbly flashlight—on a hot charcoal grill tips things too far away from “thrilling” and too close to “terrifying.” After that we shifted to using the oven, on its hottest setting. This was better all around, if a lot less exciting.
Pizza-making is extremely messy, or anyway it is when this particular idiot does it. Also, logistically speaking, there is no not-insane way for a normal person with normal kitchen implements to prepare anything you can regard as a “large” pizza, the kind that will feed a group of people, which is kind of a bummer. You can make that sucker as big as you like when it’s on a floured cutting board or countertop or table, but then at some point you have to move it, in one flat piece, to the oven (or grill), and, like, do you happen to have a fucking gigantic 26-inch pizza peel hanging around in your kitchen? No, you do not. (If you do, please let me borrow it.)
On the other hand, the homemade pizza was always delicious, and picking and choosing fun combinations of toppings is just good times. A notably insane pizza I remember was absolutely buried under chopped clams and white clam sauce and herbs. Also, twirling the dough is great, and maybe even the best part of the whole pizza experience. My doofus log house has a high peaked ceiling, so I can really fling that dang pizza crust way up there, and it never, ever gets old—whereas making and eating pizza every Saturday eventually did.
5. Making citrus syrup
It only now occurs to me how many of these are food-related. I guess that’s probably not surprising! Anyway, like at least two other Defectors (check out Chris’s limoncello recipe from this very morning), I got into this fresh citrus syrup method from Serious Eats, where you just dump a bunch of granulated sugar over a bunch of lemon (or lime or grapefruit) rinds in a big bowl and cover it, and then peel the cover back and kind of stir this stuff around every once in a while for a day or two, until the sugar has drawn all the liquid out of the rinds and dissolved it into a very brightly flavorful and also pretty-looking syrup that is absolutely great to add to a glass of very cold sparkling water. If that description did not clue you in, this does not involve a lot of craft or work or technique. In that sense I’m not sure it even qualifies as a hobby. On the other hand, that makes it a great fit for me.
Anyway I have done it several times, and will do it again! The syrup is very good, and also it’s a nice opportunity to know and use the word “hygroscopic,” a fun word. The only drawbacks are: As with anything else involving sugar and liquid, it can dramatically increase the amount of stickiness in your life; it turns a ton of lemon rinds and cups and cups of sugar into a pretty hilariously small volume of syrup; and, frankly, I do not have the kind of life that will ordinarily generate a whole lot of citrus rinds. So right now, for example, there is a jar of lemon juice in my fridge, because I wanted to make some syrup but didn’t really have any reason to have a lot of lemon rinds, so I just … squeezed a bunch of lemons, without any particular use for their juice. That’s kind of silly.
6. Staring at a live webcam feed from a beach my family couldn’t go to
I’m aware of how bleak this probably seems! But it was pretty great. I stared at that sucker for probably like 150 hours between last March and the end of 2020; if I full-screened it and concentrated very hard, as I did at least once a day for all the warm-weather months of last year, I could almost hear the surf and the wind blowing through the dune grass. Then Flash Player went to internet hell and took the webcam feed with it, and that was that.
7. Inflatable pool
Another absolute rock-bottom vacation substitute. I suppose an inflatable pool probably has to be pretty crappy to come in behind “watching a silent webcam feed of a beach” on a ranked list of … well, anything. The inflatable pool was kind of a bummer! It was like a cruel mockery of a real community swimming pool. There’s no particularly level ground anywhere around the exterior of my home, so the inflatable pool had a shallow corner (6 inches deep, pathetic) and a deep corner (maybe like 16 inches deep? Also pathetic). It was too small for the four of us to do anything beyond some moderately cramped sitting, on the millimeter-thick rubber floor of the thing, which was sitting on top of asphalt, because a corner of the driveway was the closest thing to a flat surface anywhere on our dumb hillside. Also, the hose at my house can only bring up absolutely ice-cold water from the depths of a mountain well; this could be sort of shockingly effective as a cooling method on a brutally hot midsummer day, but within five minutes in this thing your teeth would be chattering and your back would be sore from the muscles all having locked up. It took hours to fill, and then by the middle of the next day the interior surfaces would be slimy with, like … growth, so you’d have to empty it out all over again. All in all, for every minute any member of my family spent in the inflatable pool, my kids spent 40 minutes standing outside of it, splashing the water at each other and then getting upset about it.
8. Watching horse racing on TV
We are getting into pretty grim territory, here. The horse racing broadcasts are basically just a seedy, shitty-looking feed for OTB parlors. At any given time a third or more of the screen is filled with betting odds, and all the commentary concerns that bleak pastime. You can smell the cigarette smoke and desperation through the screen. But the horses are pretty—they’re horses!—and picking the best-looking one in a given race and deciding to root for it is minimally engaging in a very shabby sort of way.
This is not something I would ever, ever have considered turning into a pastime had my brain not been stultified into foam by 12 months of being trapped inside my home, interspersed with the occasional dread-soaked trip to the grocery store. I’m not even sure it’s enjoyable. It’s just something.
I did a stupid thing. It was my birthday. I don’t particularly care about my birthday, except as a pretext for getting the extended family together for dim sum, and we couldn’t do that this year. I was feeling bummed out about it, and pretty much all of the previous items on this list had already lost their novelty as pandemic distractions, and I was sort of casting around wild-eyed for something, anything, that would be new and engrossing … and I ordered an electric pasta machine. It was way too expensive and I regretted it the very instant after clicking the button to complete the order, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, since I’ve had similar instant regret about basically every purchase I’ve made in my life. Then it showed up at my house, and: The pasta machine sucks! It sucks. I hate its guts.
The premise of the electric pasta machine is that it can cut the pasta-making process down, time-wise, from one that takes roughly all of eternity to one that takes five minutes or so. Right away the klaxons should be going off in your mind: This is clearly not possible. The reason pasta-making takes a long time when done by other than an electric countertop machine isn’t that there’s anything particularly difficult or time-consuming about combining flour and liquid and forming the resulting mass into some noodle shapes—a small child can do this in mere moments—but rather that, in order to develop the elastic gluten proteins that give pasta literally all the characteristics that make it an appealing foodstuff, literally all of them, all of the ones that it has ever had or will ever have, all all all, ever ever ever, one must knead and roll the dough, repeatedly and rather forcefully, a lot. This is the precise and essential part of the process the electric pasta machine skips. It just combines the flour and the liquid, minimally, and then just starts extruding this baloney quasi-dough out of its face like you’re not even standing right there feeling profoundly fucking insulted by the grainy, mushy bullshit it intends to pass off as fresh pasta. Sickening!
I hate this machine. I suppose the idea is that you are meant to accept degraded, shitty pasta in exchange for the convenience of being able to have something you can sort of squint and imagine is credible fresh pasta within only a few minutes of deciding you’d like to have some. But the whole appeal of fresh pasta is that it is extremely good; if you want pasta and are willing to settle for pasta that is not as good as homemade fresh pasta, buying a several-hundred-dollar robot and feeding it pasta ingredients is not more convenient than buying a pound of dried pasta, particularly if the dried pasta will be glutinous and good, unlike the pasta machine’s pasta, which will be gross and mushy and depressing.
The lesson, as always, is that technology is bad.
10. Being hit by the near-daily desperate overwhelming urge to literally heave my family onto my shoulder, sprint out of the house, and drive absolutely anywhere—Florida, Montana, Saskatchewan, Honduras, anywhere, anywhere but here, God get us the fuck out of here—in a car
11. Sourdough starter
This is the absolute worst undertaking any human being has ever adopted. It is worse than burning down an orphanage. In a sane and just society, there would be a taboo against sourdough starters like there is against cannibalism. Love to expend 10 pounds of flour to make a loaf of bad-tasting bread. Love to fuss over a jar of foaming lactobacilli and yeast like it is my newborn child. I hope all sourdough burns in hell. Without thinking too deeply about the ramifications for the ecosystem, and reserving for myself the right to adjust this statement based on later findings, I hope both lactobacilli and yeast go extinct so that no one can ever make another jar of sourdough starter. I don’t even walk by the fully baked sourdough loaves at the frickin’ grocery store without giving them a dirty look, now. A curse on the house of whoever invented it.