I look over my shoulder at the clock on the oven, 11:19 a.m. Not yet, I think. A few more minutes.
These are counting days. We count the deer we see on our morning walks, the orphan gloves dropped and lying at the edge of the sidewalk; the coyotes and vultures, one each yesterday. We count the days we’ve been sheltering in place, peruse the daily Covid-19 statistics in Michigan, in the US, and around the world. We open the fridge and count eggs.
This morning I deleted Bed Bath and Beyond emails, six so far this week (“life at home made easier with the kitchen helpers”). I’ve begun organizing the photos I slid off my phone onto a detachable drive. Slid? It was an avalanche, a seismic slide; 9300 images on a phone I’m going to retire. If I look at 300 photos a day, in 31 days I’ll get through them.
At 11:19 a.m. I’m counting minutes because at 11:30, or shortly after, I’ll have a glass of red wine, sipping it while I prepare lunch, lay the table, and tend the grill.
I know. Morning wine.
You might not think so, but morning wine is a fine invention. I’m grateful to my friend Elie for helping me to appreciate it. Elie has a wine shop over in Birmingham. A few years ago I was in the store one afternoon. He shared a tip with me. He had just come back from France, on a six-day buying trip during which he said he had tasted over 600 wines. I couldn’t fathom it. How could you possibly taste that many wines in such a short time, and still be able to make distinctions? He said his trick was to do his tasting in the morning. “It also helps,” he said, “if you are just a little hungover.”
A hangover, I thought, would be a virtual certainty.
Since then my consumption habits have, shall we say, evolved. I am now convinced alcohol in the evening disturbs my sleep. Gone are the days of those long, deep, alcohol-induced, anesthetic slumbers. That was kids’ stuff. These days an after-eight glass of anything stronger than warm milk is a guarantee I’ll wake up a few hours after going to sleep, wide awake at 2:00 a.m., bathed in cold sweat, with zero chance of going back to sleep. It is not pleasant; just you, your thoughts, and Covid-19-enhanced existential dread.
Mornings after we’ve been out with friends and the wine has flowed, my wife swats my pillow and levels a judgmental glance in my direction. “You drank last night.” “I drank last night.” “How much?” “I drank last night.” “Hmmm.” So in the interest of getting a decent night’s rest, and in the interest of maintaining conjugal harmony, I try to do my drinking in the morning. That’s a joke. But it’s also the truth.
I thought of Elie the other day. I was cooking a ragu that calls for wine. There wasn’t a drop of white wine in the house. Cousin Marco over in Italy, whose family restaurant is a purveyor of award-winning tagliatelle served with dark, delicious ragu, recommends white wine in his recipe. So I’ve gone that route, laying in stores of Two Buck Chuck and budget pinot grigio for ragu, stores of which I discovered that morning were exhausted. In the days before Covid-19, lacking one ingredient, you would hop in the car and hit the local market. That was then.
I picked up the bottle of red wine that was sitting on the counter, on its third day, enough left for one glass. I was planning on enjoying that at 11:30 a.m, or shortly after.
I wondered: What about the Cecchi?
The Cecchi is a Costco Sangiovese I’ve been resting in the basement for 3-4 years. It was my summer red one year, a cheap slurping wine that went well with anything. (I think it would have been good with cereal, though I did not test that hypothesis.) We went through cases of the stuff. The Cecchi I have left is not resting as in just a few more years and it’s going to be great. It’s resting as in this wine is past due, retired, defunct.
But good enough for cooking. I opened a bottle, smelled it, and thought, Wait a minute. Could it be I have greatly exaggerated its decline?
Ah, the sound of the first pour, those gentle liquid hiccoughs, the soft gurgling, the sibilant swish of the wine swirling the glass. Even cheap wine can sound luxurious.
I tasted it. Good enough to drink? Maybe.
I took another sip. Not good, but not bad; definitely not bad. I poured a third of a cup into my ragu-in-progress, corked the bottle and stashed it over in the mud room. Still in exile. But out of the basement.
While I cooked, I stole back to the mud room a few times for another light pour, for a couple more sips.
Once I get started, I find I can review up to 1000 images a day. I create folders on the detachable drive: son, daughter; grandson #1, grandson #2, separate; grandsons together; me and Tizi, more family, friends, travel, miscellaneous. The most active folder, however, is Trash. I’m not just organizing; I’m gleaning, separating the wheat from the chaff; lots of chaff; deleting hundreds of images in a sitting.
How many pictures of tagliatelle do I really need? None, really. How many pictures of clam shells and fish skeletons? Also none. How many hillsides in Italy? None of them. I see that on several occasions in the past four years I’ve stopped along country roads up in Freeland, my hometown, and taken pictures of corn fields, soybean fields, fields dark green and lush with leafy sugar beets, recently mowed wheat fields. No reason to save these.
On regular intervals, every 150-300 photos or so, I find photos of wine bottles, pictures I’ve taken so I can look for a particular wine in a store or because I like the design on the label or because I was in good company that day, tipsy and happy, living my best day ever. The bottle pics all go in the trash.
On our Covid walks–we go every day that it doesn’t rain, and as early as we can get out there–we don’t talk much. There’s little traffic. People are out of work. Whoever we pass waves; we wave back. We tell ourselves we’ll keep doing these morning walks after Covid-19. How about that, I think. All this time, they’ve been counting Covids. There must have been an -18, a -17, all the way back to the original Covid. Maybe there was also a Catch 21 we never heard about. And a One Buck Chuck. Slaughterhouse Four. Whatever the case, it’s the current numbers that matter.
One morning I point to a couple mallards in the ditch, ask my wife, “How would you like to be a duck for a day?”
“I would,” I say. “I’d walk right up to you, let you pick me up.” Eye roll. “You could hold me, you could squeeze my little orange feet.” Another eye roll. And a smile.
I update her on my digital photo work, tell her about my folders, all the pasta photos, all the deletions. For example, I’ve deleted all the duck photos on my phone.
“Now why would you do that?”
“They were just taking up space. Plus they weren’t great pictures. I was too far away.”
I tell her it doesn’t mean I’m not committed to ducks.
I tell her about the Cecchi. She loves a Sangiovese. Lately, whatever I’m pouring she will sip from a shot glass, always at the end of lunch. Is this a San Joe? she says. I’ve wandered over to the mudroom a few more times, taken a few more sips of the Cecchi. Concluding, Well, perhaps not. No matter how early in the morning I drink this wine, no matter how hungover I might be, I’m convinced it cannot be redeemed. It’s definitely past its prime. This morning I counted seven more bottles in the basement.
We walk, and I ask if she’s noticed the bears.
Bears in living room windows. Stuffed animal bears. When we get home, in a Google search I find out it’s a thing all over, it’s gone viral. “Disasters work in interesting ways,” a Washington Post columnist writes. “Global warming means fewer polar bears. Coronavirus means more teddy bears.” This morning we counted four. I’m sure I’ve seen more.
“No,” she says.
I’m afraid we’re all out of bears, anyway.
On a stretch of scenic dirt road, where we see a friend walking her Great Dane, I ask my wife, “If I died would you get a dog?”
“Definitely not,” she says. Then she adds, “Stare dietro un cane con un pezzo di plastica a ricogliere la caca mi fa venire tutti brividi del mondo.”
A rough translation: she cringes at the thought. Her central argument here is, of course, caca. I stop and laugh. I laugh hard. Just hearing her say this in her Italian is worth a thousand pictures, better than all those hillsides, all those plates of pasta and bottles of wine. In her voice I hear her mother, her father, the playful, mordant tone you hear in her village back home. If this is shelter, I’ll take it.
We walk and wait for better numbers. The sun is out, it’s warming up. Against all odds, these are some pretty good days.