Discovering humanity in triviality: from toilet paper to sunshine


*Appreciating nature and baking cakes have become some of Josh’s newly discovered past-times. 

Australia experienced a particularly challenging start to 2020 – even before COVID – since much of the eastern seaboard was devastated by bushfires and capturing international media attention. The ferocity and destruction of the fires and smoke meant that many of us had to stay indoors from late 2019, but also for much of January 2020. Then, a violent hailstorm followed, creating much damage to buildings in Canberra and to my university.

Then the COVID lockdown happened. All state and international borders were closed. A planned trip to fly home and be with family had to be cancelled. One unexpected consequence was Australia’s panic-induced buying frenzy of toilet-paper, whose motivations are yet to be investigated with scientific rigour.

Matters were made worse by the virus’ impact on the country of my professional and personal interest, Italy, but also in Sweden where I completed my postdoctoral work, as I heard, and saw, friends and former colleagues suffer through images which bounced from the other side of the globe onto my phone.

As for others on this blog and elsewhere, the biggest problem has been the lack of personal interaction. As I gathered up screens and books from the office to take back home and set up shop there, my initial thoughts raced of boundless levels of productivity – easy access to my beloved fridge and snacks with articles one after the other pouring out! This enthusiasm dissipated when it became more and more apparent that the work I do and the person I am takes place in a community. Academic work materialised in drips and drabs (which I was grateful for), but not at a level of productivity that could be measured in monographs!


What positives can be found, or have I found? Gratitude for friends and simple acts of sharing meals together, riding my bike, baking, and messages of ‘checking everything is ok’ are simple pleasures – but they have been the most tangible, and the most real signs of keeping myself (half) sane and are useful reminders that ‘I am not my job’.

All the time indoors has made me realise that fresh air and sunshine are undervalued commodities in academic life. I have a new appreciation for the beauty of the geographical surroundings I find myself in. Meals with friends and catching up with people have also shown how much corridor-talk is where proper conversations happen, and how there can sometimes be no distinction between who is a colleague and who is a friend.

Certain internet memes have suggested that 2020 should be ‘cancelled’ or erased from the historical record. But this would also mean an erasure of the very real circumstances people find themselves in, as well as a negation of the positive aspects that have emerged this year.

Another real benefit is the renewed emphasis on the importance of mental health, and the particular way that mental health is practised in universities. A final positive has been the discovery of this podcast and its ability to open up conversations about precarity, mental health and many other topics. And I am grateful for that as well.

About the author: Josh Brown is lecturer in Italian Studies at The Australian National University (giosuemarrone.com)


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Did your productivity under lockdown increase? Nope, I was busy staying alive, but I learned a lesson or two on mental health

Raise your hand if you ever thought at the beginning of the pandemic: “With lockdown, there is plenty of time to rest, learn a new language, pick up an instrument, and take care of myself”. I now wonder if anyone managed these things. In a climate of utmost uncertainty about the future, remaining in good mental health should already be regarded as a major achievement.

For me, the biggest challenge has been the lack of personal interaction. I initially welcomed the idea of reduced interaction, and less social pressure, but humans (myself included) live off scents, body language and face-to-face contact. In the long run, this lack of social interaction has become more of a curse than I expected.

I remember pre-lockdown spending time reading posts and tweets to make sense of all that was happening to see if I would be allowed into the next country where I had a meeting or just call it a day (well, a year). My initial plan was to complete fellowships that I had been delaying for years: Helsinki, then Almaty, followed by Chisinau until I landed in February in Daegu (the Korean epicenter of the outbreak); a sort of jackpot, just the other way around. In the end, I had to evacuate.

I frightfully saw borders closing after me like in an action movie. Fearing refoulement at any stop, I made it to my “arrival point”, Kiev, Ukraine, in March – 4 days before its international borders were sealed. By the end of the month, walking sober in a park in Ukraine would cost you more in fines than being caught completely drunk driving your car.

Logistically this location was a good choice. Supermarkets were never ravaged by “buy-it-all” shoppers, and toilet paper and home delivery food were widely available. My kids were also there this year. They are old enough to be autonomous during online schooling but small enough to be tickled during breaks. In addition, I share 50% custody with their mother (one week each) so I have had some free time. To maintain being socially active, during “her” week I visit them. My affective life was not really “interrupted” like others. But being “better off” than others does not mean “feeling good”. You still need to make efforts to preserve your mental health. I have seen many around me sink into their gloomiest thoughts. I have thus tried to make up for the lack of social interaction by doing the following:

Set a deadline: It is impossible to change your life indefinitely. But you can tell yourself “for the next 30 days, I will live like this”. After 30 days you can just renew this period. Gradually sliding into a new reality will make it easier for your brain to adapt.

Be compassionate with yourself: A pandemic is an outstanding event. If you want to procrastinate more, sleep, or watch a movie, just do it. Do not feel guilty because you are not as productive as you imagined. You are unique and your reaction to a crisis situation may differ.

Get some fresh air and some sunlight: I rented a room 15 minutes’ walk from the river and 20 minutes from the woods. I walked up to 3-4 hours per day alone and in respect of the nation’s lockdown rules to make up for the lack of communication.

Eat well: Under stress, I tend to eat sweets and gain weight. Setting “losing weight” as a goal gave me something to work towards to get a sense of achievement and feel comfortable in my body, which is important when the rest of the world is falling apart.

Make going out an excuse to take care of yourself: The temptation to stay in my pajamas was high but I was well aware of its long-term risks. Going to the shop to buy that missing ingredient, or just to do some reading on a bench was an excuse to leave the house and exchange a word with the grocery store security clerk.

Reduce internet activities: Interaction with other people gives you energy, but internet interaction can suck more energy out of people than it gives, so I decided to concentrate on writing, reading and working.

Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser. He is the author of “The SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia”, a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career. You can find him on Twitter at @Abiquitous and @scopusdiaries.

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