Sunday, March 29, 2020

Hunkering Up!

Stay home. Self quarantine. Hunker down.

I have been hunkering down so long, it looks like hunkering up to me.

A scene from perhaps 20 years ago plays out in my mind. I was at a meeting crowded with social workers and case managers. From the back of the room a voice called out, “Can anyone tell me the five stages of grief?” It seemed an out-of-place question for a meeting convened to discuss the new laptop computer-based case management system. For the past 40 minutes these social workers had resisted and questioned the system. It intruded on their relationships with clients; it slowed them down; it wasn’t necessary. “We don’t have to do this!” “It won’t work because …” “It won’t work unless …” “It will never work!”

And then, this bizarre question from the back of the room. Of course, in a room full of social workers, everyone knew Kübler Ross’s five stage model of grief. One person after another answered the question, calling it out one stage at a time. “Denial.” “Anger.” “Bargaining.” “Depression.” “Acceptance.”

The voice from the back of the room spoke again. “What stage are you in now?”

The pertinence of the question became apparent. There was a long pause as the social workers recognized they were grieving their old ways of working. They were in denial. They were angry. They were bargaining. They were depressed.

The pause continued awkwardly until one of them said, “OK, how can we make this work.”



From my work with computer viruses, I knew something about how they spread so, for this pandemic, I fast-forwarded right past denial, anger, and bargaining and went straight to depression. As I stay at home day after day, distance myself from others when I do go out, monitor every doorknob, steering wheel, and can of beans I touch and wipe them down afterwards and wash my hands, I hold depression at bay and lean to acceptance. I accept this new normal. This is it.


An old Jewish story comes to mind. My retelling draws on a version by Doug Lipman.

Two students are studying the psalms and they come to the line, “This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24.) They are troubled by it, so they ask their rabbi, “On a day when everything is good, it is easy to say this line with a full heart. But, how can we say it with genuine intent on a bad day?”

“A good question,” says their rabbi. “For this question, “you should visit Reb Zushya.”

To find Reb Zushya the students must travel, by foot, to a distant village. On the third day of their journey they arrive in the heart of the village. They ask, “Can you tell us where we can find Reb Zushya?”

“Sorry, we don’t know anyone by that name.”

They knock on many doors, receiving the same response. They continue to inquire further and further from the center of the village; they begin to despair. Finally, someone responds, “I recall a man who used to be known by that name. He lives some distance from here.”

The students follow the villager’s directions and proceed down a narrow street, which turns into a dirt road, which turns into an overgrown footpath. They see a small building ahead – a shack, a hut. As they approach, they notice a window covered with cardboard, the roof missing some shingles, the outer door hanging askew from its upper hinge. They knock at the door. A voice from within whispers, “I’ll be with you soon.”

In time, a man opens the door from within and asks, “What can I do for you, my sons?”

“Our rabbi sent us here to ask a question. Are you Reb Zushya?”

“Yes, I am. Welcome, come in, but please be quiet. My wife is very ill, and she has just gone to sleep.” He pointed to a blanket drawn across the opposite corner of the small room. He waved in the students and pulled up two wooden boxes so they could sit at his wobbly table, filled three wooden cups with water, and broke his remaining bread in three pieces. When they each had something to drink and eat, he asked, “So, what is this question you have come here to ask?”

One of the students explained, “We were studying the psalms and came to the line, ‘This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ We were troubled by it, so we asked our rabbi. ‘It is easy to say this line with a full heart on a good day, but how can we really mean it on a bad day?’ Our rabbi told us, ‘This is a question you should ask Reb Zushya.’ So, here we are.”

Puzzled, Reb Zushya looked at one student and then the other and then leaned back a bit. Shaking his head slowly, he replied, “I don’t know why your rabbi sent you to ask me this question, I have never had a bad day!”


This virus – like ones before it and ones that will follow – is no laughing matter. But, in the spirit of hunkering up:
  • Two buddies walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll you have?” The first one says, “I’ll have a Corona.” The second says, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
  • Scientists have observed a number of similarities among the various virus outbreaks and have demonstrated that the viruses are copying from each other. It’s a clear‑cut case of plague‑arism.* 
  • Did you hear the joke about the virus? Never mind, you probably won’t get it.*
  • Jewish irony: Passover curtailed because of a plague.*
  • Many of my fellow storytellers and musicians have announced cancellations of their performances. Without minimizing their difficulties, I would like to announce I will not be performing at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, or Madison Square Garden.
* Shamelessly adapted from the Internet.


My title plays on Richard Fariña‘s 1966 book, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. In closing, I refer to Jack Kerouac‘s 1962 novel, Big Sur. It’s a fictionalized autobiography in which the main character deteriorates, physically and mentally, in what seem to be irretrievable downhill slides. Then, as the book concludes, comes an artful turnaround. Redemption is not out of reach. Kerouac writes what we hope for.

“Something good will come out of all things yet.”  


  1. Thanks for brightening up my day! It's cloudy and rainy where I am. We are many days into a "stay at home" order. And yet we can still appreciate a joke and look forward to a better future.

    1. As we say in New York, "Excelsior!" (The state motto, "Ever Upward.")

  2. Here in the Philadelphia area, we are in the middle of a mandatory "hunker down at home" order. The other night, some teenagers were trying to break into houses. A neighbor saw them and called the police, who arrived quickly. They gave chase and eventually cornered the teens. As they put on the handcuffs one policeman shouted at them, "What did you think you were doing trying to break into those homes? And besides, there's a mandatory stay at home order! Travel is only allowed for medical emergencies!" One of the kids blurted out, "But we were trying to steal drugs!" One officer looked at the other officer and said, "Travel to get drugs is allowed! We have to let them go!"

  3. Thanks for making me smile and lightening my day. That's what we need to learn is how to be there for each other.

  4. Thanks, Sandy! From age 19-30, I worked in a hospital as a member of a cardiac arrest team, in and out of the ER, ICU and OR. Now, almost 50 years later, I work in a library and I don't have bad days. No matter how challenging my work day, I always think "At least no one was bleeding, no heart attacks, no real emergencies." Like the story says, it could always be worse...

    1. Yes, make the best of the situation (or, at least, don't make it worse).

    2. I'm wondering if "unknown" (commenter above) who now works in a library is still in his/hers.....Ours are closed. BUT I took myself to a local independent bookstore and found two great books - had LOTS of time and space to browse, and now have TIME TO READ.. which I often don't. I'm feeling hunkered up, and really appreciate your post, especially Reb Zushya. Quite a guy.... Oh, and clearing old story files I found Billy Beg and the Bull, an Irish tale that's part Cinderella, part dragon killer, and more. The bull is like the fairygodmother in that Billy gets lots of magical gifts. A total hoot. I've had that since printers had printed in paper rolls with little holes on the side. 1970s or maybe 80s when I "found" storytelling and started typing tales I "might tell some day".. Billy Beg would take a half an hour easy to get in all those motifs. Have fun.

    3. I'm surprised the bookstore was open! Having the libraries closed is, as we used to say, a real bummer.

      Looking forward to hearing "Billy Beg and the Bull!"


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