Five Essential Inventions For A Tolerable Quarantine

We’ve been self-isolating for more than three weeks now, and while many people are complaining about being cooped up for so long, I think it’s important to recognize those things that have made our collective bout with quarantine more tolerable.  I’ve come up with a list of five things that I think have been essential, listed in reverse order of their first invention.  Two of them are about as old as civilization, interestingly.

  1.  Alcohol — Where would we be without wine, beer, and other adult beverages?  At the end of a hard day of working at home, a glass of wine or a cold tumbler of suds sure make the graphs showing how curves can be flattened and the news about ventilator production go down a bit easier.  Liquor sales spiked after the shutdown was announced, and it quickly became clear that Americans put alcohol on the same exalted level as toilet paper when it comes to being absolutely certain of having a more than ample supply.  As somebody said, it’s not clear that people are drinking more during the work-at-home period, but they’re sure not drinking any less, either.  As for the invention of adult beverages, humans have made both wine and beer for so long that their dates of creation have been lost in the mists of time.  Scientists recently discovered earthenware jars containing wine residue that indicated humans were guzzling fermented grape juice more than 8,000 years ago, and beer is the subject of the oldest recorded recipe in the world — instructions that were found on ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls that date back to 5,000 B.C. 
  2. Soap — You’ve got to give people something to do during a pandemic to make them feel like they are pitching in, and for Americans the instructions are clear:  wash your hands, thoroughly and repeatedly.   As soon as we get back from our allotted exercise walks we head dutifully to the sink for our required 20-second bout with lathering, scrubbing, and rinsing.  It may not sound like much, but those constant 20-second scrubbings add up and help to pass the slow-moving quarantine time, and they make us feel good about doing our part.  Soap also dates back thousands of years, with historians believing that the Babylonians invented the first soap, made from fats boiled with ashes, about 5,000 years ago.
  3. Canned food and crock pots — It’s probably safe to say that people are cooking more at home than they’ve done in the last 50 years, and because there’s an interest in trying to minimize trips to the grocery store, people are trying to stretch their food stores and leftovers farther than ever before.  That’s where canned food and crock pots really strut their stuff.  In fact, I think it is safe to say that no single device is more adept at converting aging leftovers into tasty meals than the crock pot.  Whether it’s stews made of random items hauled from the cupboard, or last night’s chili made with leftover meat loaf, leftover sausage, a can of black beans, some chopped onions, and liberal doses of Texas Pete’s hot sauce and sriracha sauce, our crock pot has been a high-producing kitchen item during the last few weeks.  The smells coming from the crock pot also help to make the quarantine household a happy place, too.  Canned foods were first invented more than 200 years ago, and the first slow cookers — the precursors to the crock pot, which was first call the “bean pot” — were invented about 80 years ago
  4. PCs — Where would we be without personal computers and laptops?  For many of us, they are the one, essential device that allows us to work from home, and without them the unemployment statistics in America would be much, much worse.  They also allow us to get the latest news with a few touches of keyboard buttons, and to catch up on our friends and check out the latest coronavirus memes and political rants on social media websites.  The laptop PC is the fulcrum that has moved the working world, and the COVID-19 quarantine is the singular event that will probably change our approach to how people work and do business, forever.  The first personal computer — the Altair 8800 — was invented in 1975, and the first laptop — which weighed more than 30 pounds, incidentally — was released in 1981.
  5. Netflix and other streaming services — One very popular topic among friends on social media these days is swapping information about nightly viewing options.  Everybody’s got an opinion, because we’re all watching a lot of TV during this shut-in period, and we’re running through viewing options faster than ever before.  (The ten episodes of season three of Ozark, for example, flew by far too quickly.)  Netflix and other streaming services allow us to pick from an enormous array or TV shows and movies, old and new, and then advise our friends on whether options like Tiger King or Messiah are worth checking out.  What would we do without constant entertainment?  Netflix first started streaming content in 2007 — just in the nick of time, relatively speaking.

So there you have it — millennia of human invention and creativity, all combining to make the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 a bit more tolerable for American shut-ins.  Thanks to the ancient winemakers, the Egyptians and Babylonians, and the techno-geeks and food canners.  We owe you a great debt of gratitude.

And now, it’s time to check out a few websites and think about what we’ll be making for dinner tonight.

Scents And Sensibilities

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve decided to be a rebel and want to try to make it through a day without being overly scented.  That, just this once, you’d like to not carry around the wafting essence of mint on your person, or you’d rather not smell like a slightly overripe holiday fruit basket.

Yeah, good luck with that!

The reality is that in modern America we are being bombarded with scents.  If you’re in a hotel and are using the hotel shampoo and soap, you’re going to be subjected to the fragrance of their choice — and God knows what it might be.  When you go to wash your hands in the bathroom at your office, you’re probably going to have your hands immersed in still more scents.  And in many office buildings and hotels these days there are aromas periodically being  released, automatically, in public areas. 

It’s become a pretty smelly world when you stop and think about it.  We’ve moved far beyond the little plastic container of Glade that your Mom used to keep in the bathroom.

And here’s the additional thing:  it’s not just one scent anymore.  The modern smellmakers aren’t satisfied with, say, plain old sandalwood.  They’re hard at work coming up with new and highly peculiar combinations of smells that leave you guessing about what the actual combined smell actually is.  What, exactly, might “Kitchen Mandarin” smell like?  Does the “Mandarin” refer to a kind of orange, or an ancient Chinese potentate?  And if I squirt the “Vanilla Eucalyptus” foam on my hands, am I going to smell like a Christmas cookie, or a cough drop, or some ghastly scent in between?  And, even more fundamentally, it seems terribly unfair to present people with these puzzling, shot in the dark choices when they are washing their hands and just want to move on with their days.

Can’t we just call a truce on the development of new tinctures, and offer everyone an unscented option?  Would it be possible to go back to soap just smelling like soap?

Pontius Pilate Probably Did It Wrong, Too

Scientists have determined that we’ve all been washing our hands the wrong way.  They say the simple soap up, vigorously rub until lather forms, then rinse method that we’ve been using isn’t very effective at killing the bacteria that collects on our hands.

handwashing-banner1A study conducted by a university in Scotland concluded that the common three-step method only reduced the “average bacterial count”on hands from “3.08 colony-forming units per milliliter to 2.88.”  The study advocates, instead, for a six-step method that involves the initial soap-up step followed by scrubbing the backs of hands, the backs of fingers, between fingers, then rotational rubbing of your thumbs, and finally the fingers on your opposite hand.  If it sounds complicated, it is:  the study confesses that only 65 percent of people who were given an instruction sheet did it correctly.  The average time to correctly complete the six-step procedure, incidentally, was 42.5 seconds.

But here’s the rub:  after doing the six-step hand fandango, there were still an average of 2.58 colony-forming units of bacteria per milliliter on the study participants’ hands.  In other words, even after you’ve vigorously scrubbed away and performed the “rotational rubbing of your thumbs” for a full 42.5 seconds, more than half of those bacteria that had been on your hands are still there, ready to form a “colony.”

And that’s not even the worst part.  Standing in front of the sink in a public restroom washing your hands for 42.5 seconds is the functional equivalent of an eternity.  Nobody spends that much time washing their hands — not even Howard Hughes.  If you stood at a sink in a public bathroom for 42.5 seconds aggressively scouring your hands in a lathery storm, any other person who happened to be in the bathroom at the same time would conclude that you are either trying to eliminate DNA evidence after committing murder or on the verge of being committed for raging hypochondria.

So I don’t think I’m going to be spending 42.5 seconds enduring the over-the-top fragrances of hand soaps and giving my thumbs a workout in order to marginally reduce, but not come close to eliminate altogether, the bacteria hanging out on my hands.  I’ll stick with the three-step method, get out of the bathroom within a reasonable time, and just let those hardy surviving bacteria go about their colony-forming business.

Soap Stack

If you want to enjoy the small pleasures inherent in using things up — or, alternatively phrased, if you are a cheap bastard who wants to avoid spending any unnecessary buck — it takes some work.

Consider the humble bar of soap.  You use it, and at some point it becomes a thin shard of its former self.  It could still serve its cleaning and lathering purpose, but the mechanics make it difficult.  You can’t really grip it in the normal way, because the pressure of your fingers would break it into even smaller pieces.  If you try to palm it instead, the slippery remnants slide from your hand.  And what to do about the odd-shaped hotel soaps — the ovals, and perfect squares, and little circles, all exotically scented — that you have collected during your travels?  This is why most soap ends its life cycle unhappily, tossed into the trash in frustration or melting into oblivion on the shower floor.

The solution is the soap stack.  Through careful engineering and soap size matching, the cheapskate constructs a multi-bar creation that maintains the bulk and heft necessary to proper soap usage.  It takes patience, and some dry aging, for the soap tails to become welded together into a functional unit, leaving you with a riotously multi-hued object.  But when it works, the result is an immensely satisfying accomplishment for the practitioner of household economy.

Of course, it drives Kish nuts when I do this.

Hotel Soap

At some point in the not-too-distant past — I’m not sure exactly when — every hotel in the United States decided that it needed to stock guest room bathrooms with soap that is an apparently random combination of fruit, plant, and flower fragrances.  In my latest hotel stay, the soap, as well as the shampoo, conditioner, and every other personal hygiene item, uses a lime/coconut/verbena combination.  At other hotels, I’ve used soap that featured fresh mint, basil, mandarin orange, lemon, mango, sandalwood, witchhazel, organic flax seed, and countless other scents.

Verbena

Verbena

Why must this be so?  Am I the only traveler who yearns for a bar of Ivory soap, or Dial, or even Irish Spring?  It cannot be that every hotel guest wants to emerge from his hotel room, fresh from a morning shower but smelling like a riotous collection of every item stocked on the shelves of the neighborhood greengrocer.   And who comes up with these curious combinations?  Do soap companies now employ rugged fragrance hunters who hack their way through the rain forest, looking for new plants with new odors?  Do they have labs where they test weird fragrance mixtures concocted by mad scientists?

What is verbena, anyway?  I checked, and it is a flower . . . and a pretty one, at that.  Doesn’t smell bad, either — it is just not what I necessarily want to smell like when I head off to a business meeting on the road.