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The author’s dog, Coal, out for a walk on an empty street in Arlington.
The author’s dog, Coal, out for a walk on an empty street in Arlington.

Quarantine diaries | Washington, DC: Maintaining a two-leash distance in Arlington

Walking your dog, soaking in the beauty of cherry blossoms and feeling grateful in the time of coronavirus

Though I have had fleeting moments of fear, panic, shock and anger as we hunker down in our home, mostly I feel gratitude. I recently moved from New York City, now in a state of emergency, to Arlington, Virginia—a nice, clean and relatively low-density suburb of Washington, DC. I am grateful that I am not suddenly without a job, though no one knows what the long-term holds. So far, no one in the family is showing symptoms of Covid-19. I am in an apartment with food, excellent internet, close to a thousand books, and living with someone I actually like, not just love. And I am incredibly thankful to my dog, Coal, who sees the world no differently post-Covid-19.

Coal, our five-year-old black Labrador retriever, not only keeps us sane, but brightens our day in a way that is not, and cannot be, human. He has none of the human anxiety over Covid-19 or the uncertain future and exemplifies living in the present. He is at his happiest as we are home all the time, always within reach for a quick cuddle. Walking him gets us out of the home three-four times a day, and though this has always been one of my favourite activities, now the walks are truly special, keeping my anxiety and cabin fever at bay.

A perimeter set up at Washington, DC Tidal Basin during cherry blossom season to keep people from crowding.
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A perimeter set up at Washington, DC Tidal Basin during cherry blossom season to keep people from crowding.

As everything shuts down, what we all miss is spontaneous human interaction. Dogs and dog people are great at filling this missing piece. It’s not strange for me to spontaneously chat with a complete stranger on the street while our dogs sniff each other’s butts. Because the disease does not affect dogs, it is safe to pet them and chat for a few minutes with other humans—while always maintaining a two-leash distance. Never have I been more grateful to have those little glimpses of spontaneity and humanity from the dog-owner community.

Washington, DC is also home to the Cherry Blossom festival, a result of a century-old gift of 3,020 cherry trees from Japan. The DC area and suburbs are blooming with Yoshino cherry trees. This year’s Cherry Blossom festival has been cancelled, but the trees will bloom for the next 10-14 days. The trees look beautiful as nature is bursting with spring, while the streets look like a ghost town with the occasional dog or jogger. This year, Washingtonians got their wish—experiencing cherry blossoms without the inevitable crowds—reminding us that we should be careful what we wish for.

I have studied, worked and lived in six countries across three continents in the last 13 years. The anxiety of having parents and close family and friends far away, especially when something bad happens, is an emotion I have learnt to live with. The current pandemic, lockdown and travel bans only add to the anxiety about the distance, though it always lingers in the background.

I research, write and teach economics for a living, though the teaching is currently on pause. Many years ago, my dissertation adviser joked that the greatest occupational hazard I face is a paper cut. Never have I been more cognizant of the privilege and sheer good luck of having an academic career, than at this moment.

Academic life has made me surprisingly well suited for the lockdown. I am accustomed to working alone or in small groups. I have long years of training in structuring my interactions—classroom teaching, office hours for students, meetings and long-distance calls with co-authors or editors, engaging with other academics in a seminar setting. And spontaneous human interaction or water-cooler chit-chat has never been a big part of my work life. The practice of writing instead of speaking to communicate is an incredibly useful skill as we all work remotely. I have editors at Mint I have never met and co-authors I haven’t been in a room with for years. Yet we continuously exchange ideas, have arguments, work together and learn from each other, long distance, and through the written word. And when I am not working, I have Bryson, Babasaheb and the Berlin Symphony for company.

This is not to say that there is no struggle. Writing in a disciplined way every day is always a struggle. But the struggle is internal. The panic and anxiety, and “reading" Covid-19 updates all day online, are all distracting. But overcoming those distractions to write is not so different from overcoming distractions like cat videos every day. In this moment, even the inevitability of the struggle of writing feels comforting. And knowing that my struggle is nothing compared to the health and economic struggles of others affected by Covid-19 makes me feel extreme gratitude.

Shruti Rajagopalan is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US, and writes the Impartial Spectator column for Mint.

'Read more quarantine diaries from Indians across the world here.'

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