Week of self-isolation uncovers new skills, untold family history

Day one: Learn the harmonica

Could I learn to play the harmonica like the virtuoso Larry Adler?

Could I learn to play the harmonica like the virtuoso Larry Adler?

Somehow I have accumulated three harmonicas and I can barely get a note out of any of them. I decide to remedy this by going to that respected repository of all knowledge – YouTube.

And there I find nerdy men – it’s always nerdy men – blowing, drawing, bending, puckering and tonguing. I double-check to make sure I haven’t accidentally typed “how to perform oral sex” into the search bar instead of “how to play harmonica”.

My ambition for the day is to learn the melody of The Beatles’ Love Me Do. I’ll work my way up to the frantic solo in The Romantics’ What I Like About You during the next pandemic.

After a couple of hours I can hardly feel my lips, but to my delight I can vaguely make my way around the song.

Different countries deal with COVID-19 in different ways. In Italy they sing in heart-warming harmony from their balconies. In Australia we punch people in supermarket aisles over a pack of toilet paper.

I go out to my balcony like those plucky Italians and blow my harmonica for all it’s worth. My laconic neighbour Alan comes out to see what all the noise is about. He lets me finish, then gives me a slow handclap.

“A wise man is someone who knows how to play the harmonica and chooses not to,” he informs me.

I tell him that he’s welcome to throw things at me, but if he can make it rolls of toilet paper I’d appreciate it. Preferably two-ply.

Day two: Do online yoga

I can’t swim laps because my local pool is a petri dish at this point. How can I exercise while staying indoors?

Yoga! Unfortunately, everything about yoga makes me want to ever-so-gently smash things – especially that infuriating trend where people post pics of themselves doing pretzel-like poses in front of lakes, mountains and famous landmarks.

Yoga loosened me up and made me feel like I’ve done some exercise.

Yoga loosened me up and made me feel like I’ve done some exercise.Credit:Adobe Stock

But, I need exercise. So I go online and one name keeps popping up – Adriene Mishler. She’s apparently a huge deal, with four million subscribers to her YouTube channel, Yoga with Adriene.

I start with Yoga At The Desk, as that’s the place I spend most of my waking life.

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Adriene appears onscreen, looking a little like a young Jennifer Garner. She radiates health in a white tank-top and black leggings. I’m unshaven, wearing an old Elvis Costello T-shirt with a hole under one arm and I look a little like a sleep-deprived Michael Stipe. On the window seat behind Adriene are peacock feathers artfully placed in various glazed vases. I’m surrounded by a half-drunk cup of cold coffee, the remains of a bagel with cream cheese and two stacks of New Yorker magazines (see Day 3).

Adriene takes me through some stretches with a dreamy smile on her face, as if she’s attaining divine enlightenment. I, on the other hand, am suddenly aware that during one exercise my neck is making a worrying clicking noise I’ve never noticed before.

I try a few more of her videos with names like Quick Stress Fix and Foundations Of Flow. When I find one called Self-Love Yoga I get a little over-excited, but unfortunately it turns out both Adriene and I keep our clothes on.

End result? I do feel like I’ve done some exercise and loosened up, even if Adriene’s references to soulful breaths and keeping your heart lifted cause me to strain my ocular muscles with a series of intense eye rolls.

Day three: Do a Marie Kondo on my office

There are two types of Virgos: the ones who are obsessive and minimalist and the ones who are obsessive and maximalist. My wife is the former and I’m the latter. Fortunately, I have a thing called “my office”, a personal domain/black hole that is getting smaller and smaller because everything I own is in there – records, CDs, books, guitars, magazines, toys, dead animals that crawled in two years ago and couldn’t find their way out.

Japanese “organising consultant” Marie Kondo’s philosophy and methodology is not just a foreign language to me because she speaks Japanese – how am I meant to throw stuff out when absolutely everything I own sparks joy?

 Channelling Marie Kondo can be a time-consuming business.

Channelling Marie Kondo can be a time-consuming business.

But I had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was two teetering towers of New Yorker magazines. I teased one out from near the bottom of one pile and looked at the date. It was from December 2016. This could take a while.

And it did, because I flicked through every single magazine. If there was a story I really had to keep I tore it out and placed it in a folder.

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Then, as Kondo suggests, I said “thank you” to the remaining magazine and put it in the discard box. By the end of the day I had two fat folders, but I’d thrown my weight in magazines into the recycling bin.

Day four: Learn to bake an apple pie from scratch

Apparently, during the Black Death, quarantined Florentines (and that’s what I’m naming my new death-metal band, by the way) received a daily allowance of two loaves of bread and a pint of wine. No such luck in Australia in 2020, where we have to make do with the 28 packets of dry noodles we’ve hoarded by sleeping out overnight in front of Coles every day for a month.

Sorry Martha and Michelle, Gordon Ramsay's pie was the winner.

Sorry Martha and Michelle, Gordon Ramsay’s pie was the winner.Credit:Getty

As I now have time to spend in the kitchen – rather than frantically throwing half a dozen fish fingers in the frying pan, microwaving some frozen veggies and flinging them in the general direction of my two young daughters – I’ve made a momentous decision. I’m going to bake an apple pie from scratch!

But which one? Online there are approximately three million opinions about the best recipe. Then I find a site that compares three of the most popular, from Martha Stewart, Michelle Obama and Gordon Ramsay. I decide to try them all. We will stockpile pie and survive this crisis one slice at a time.

The Obama pie is not bad, although the pastry was a little limp. The filling of the Martha Stewart pie was surprisingly bland. This was disappointing because I wanted to use the punchline: it’s criminal how good Martha’s pie tastes.

I went “method” while making the Ramsay pie, swearing at the apples as I sliced them, hurling spatulas at the wall and berating imaginary assistant chefs until they cried imaginary tears. But the result was the best of the three. The secret is in caramelising the apples first, which, as Ramsay would say, is a “f—ing time-consuming shitfest”, but it’s worth it. I will be making this again long after COVID-19 hightails it out of here. And I shall dub thee isolation pie.

Day five: Learn to meditate

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I’m not a great sleeper at the best of times.

My friend Kathy, who practices Buddhism, is always telling me I should meditate, which is a bit like telling a fish he should learn to ride a bike. But last year when I saw Nick Cave do his “in conversation” shows, he talked about the fact he meditated daily using an app. If the Prince of Darkness could do it, then goddamn it, so could I. And what better time than now, when the world seems to be ending in much the same way as a Nick Cave song from the ’80s?

I sceptically downloaded an app called 10 Percent Happier, mainly because it’s “for the sceptic who isn’t sure they want to meditate”. The man behind it is Dan Harris, the US TV news correspondent who turned to meditation after he had a panic attack live on air in front of over five million viewers.

The first couple of sessions didn’t do much for me, because my mind wouldn’t stop racing. In fact, I had to interrupt session two because I suddenly realised I was meant to be at school pick-up. But by session three later that night, I finally concentrated on my breath, just like the softly-spoken dude in my earbuds was telling me, and felt some sort of lightness. Then I promptly fell asleep for seven unbroken hours.

Day six: Learn Italian

We want to live in Rome for a year. Not right now, mio Dio. But eventually. Despite the fact that three of my grandparents were Italian, my language skills are that of a bambino piccolo. Ironically, my wife, an Anglo girl from Perth, can speak Italian pretty well, as she did an exchange program to Bergamo when she was 16 and lived with an Italian family who spoke no English. Sadly, Bergamo was the centre of the Italian coronavirus outbreak.

When we finally get to Rome, I won't have to rely on my wife to do the ordering.

When we finally get to Rome, I won’t have to rely on my wife to do the ordering.Credit:Fairfax

My first online lesson is a little strange. Io bevo vino – I drink wine. Beviamo vino – we drink wine. Il pesce e la cena – the fish is the dinner. Tu sei l’uomo – you are the man.

I feel like I’m stuck in a nightmare where I’m reciting stilted dialogue on a man-date in Tuscany with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As I click on more and more words and phrases to build up my vocabulary, a cartoon owl appears onscreen, waves at me and says, “Your hard work is paying off!”

I really want to please that cartoon owl, so I keep going for two hours. My self-isolation will pay off when I finally go back to the old country and order lots of booze while dating men.

Day seven: Get started on my mother’s oral history

My mum is elderly and lives in a Sydney retirement village. I now live in Perth, so I call her every day, but the conversations revolve around health issues, the weather and her regular updates on the successful lives of people whose names I don’t recognise, but who I apparently had as classmates when I was 10.

For a long time I’ve told myself I need to get my mother’s oral history – mainly to stop her talking about how successful people I haven’t seen since primary school have become.

Kevin and Maria Divola at Manly Wharf in the early days of their marriage.

Kevin and Maria Divola at Manly Wharf in the early days of their marriage.

So I start by asking her about the day she met my dad. I can hardly stop her talking. It turns out she was seeing a chap called Cecil at the time and she was meant to be playing tennis with him one Saturday in the semi-finals of the mixed doubles. Cecil called that morning to say he’d been unexpectedly called in to work, but he would be sending his mate Kevin, who was a pretty good player and a nice guy.

Poor old Cecil. My mum and Kevin lost the match that day, but they won each other. “Your father always said he would never forget me walking down the steps to the courts in my little white tennis dress,” she informs me.

And then she starts telling me about another bloke called John, who she dated beforehand. “He looked exactly like John F. Kennedy,” she says. “I only went out with good-looking boys.”

My mum tells me that at her wedding John came up to congratulate them and when he hugged my mother he whispered in her ear “It’ll never last.”

John was divorced twice. My mother and father were married until he died exactly two years ago as I write these words today.

Who knows if my meditation, yoga, tidying, harmonica-playing, pie-baking and Italian-speaking skills will continue after this virus crisis finally passes? But getting that story out of my mum was worth it.

Barry Divola is a regular contributor to Spectrum.

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