The Covid Blur: Lost In The Pandemic's Time-Space Continuum

The lockdowns have arrived as technology accentuates the passage from ritually organized time to time without clear limits.

The days are similar, and weekends, which aren't quite there anymore, don't really mark a break
Jean-Michel Normand

PARIS — What if we do New Year's Eve next April, among daffodils, tulips and forsythias in bloom? It depends, obviously, on how the pandemic pans out, but who's the say the powers that be won't end up rescheduling? It wouldn't be the first time, after all.

The French Open, the usual final hurdle to fine weather, was served to us in September with the first dead leaves. The same was true for the Tour de France: Bike riders who usually traverse the country during the summer vacation raced this year during the back-to-school period.

The turmoil that's mixing up our collective milestones echoes the insidious disruption of our individual biorhythms. In the present, the hours expand. The days are similar, and weekends, which aren't quite there anymore, don't really mark a break. And yet, looking in the rear-view mirror, the months seem to have gone by at breakneck speed.

The pandemic has created a kind of scrambling. Time has become blurred. Chronos is playing tricks on us. "One Sunday morning I received an email from a coworker," says Emilie, who works in publishing. "We have a clear policy of not working on the weekends. But when I reminded her, she admitted, honestly confused, that she didn't know it was Sunday."

We used to think: It's Monday, so I'm going to the office. Now it's: I'm going to the office, so it's Monday. The nuance may seem tenuous, but it's destabilizing because what it suggests is that our lives are no longer punctuated by schedules — as was the case since the monastic era — but by activity itself.

Technology allows and accentuates this passage from ritually organized time to time without clear limits. And the result is a dynamic of permanent synchronization between our activities and our rhythms of life.

It's as if I'm being deprived of a part of my life.

Pascal Chabot calls it "hypertime," and in it we sometimes have the curious sensation of living in a loop of a single day, a kind of "lundimanche" (SundayMonday) as they began saying here in France during the first quarantine. English speakers created their own mashup word: "blursday." Little wonder that the Washington Post launched a daily newsletter late last month entitled What Day is it? — to help readers drop bread crumbs on the path of time and avoid social isolation.

If Salvador Dalí"s melting watch has swallowed our internal clocks, it's also because the dividing line between the professional and the domestic — which was actually quite blurred already — has been shattered. Telecommuting tramples on space and time markers. And the restrictive health measures, which are constantly changing, discourage any desire to seriously project oneself a few weeks ahead.

The return of lockdown, even with different guidelines, also suggests a return to square one, as if the pandemic were holding us as prisoner in a temporal loop from which we could not escape. Semiologist Mariette Darrigrand suggests that this widespread unease stems from the fact that we remain deeply structured by the work-life duality. "The blurring of boundaries that we are experiencing conflicts with a need for a binary that remains deeply rooted in us," she says.

Caroline, an airline executive, can't stand the new situation: "This blurred time, with no reference points, is something we really suffer through. It's a terrible period of withdrawal and loss of meaning. The other day, I spent a whole day in my workplace, meeting after meeting after meeting... at a distance. No more outings with friends, no more unexpected meetings with colleagues. I feel like I'm living in the cloud. It's as if I'm being deprived of a part of my life."

As Benoît Heilbrunn, a teacher at ESCP Business School, points out, our "digital society" comes with a whole new set of responsibilities. "Synonymous with ubiquity — we are both at home and at work — it feeds this profound disturbance in the assessment of time, which has become subjective rather than linear," he says.

Heilbrunn thinks we're moving more and more toward an "I work when I want" mindset, even if this is increasingly anxiety-provoking. Moreover, it is not only teleworkers who feel this form of weightlessness. Judith, 63, entered retirement recently. To ease her apprehension, she made a plan: gym on Mondays and Wednesdays, art workshop on Fridays. But then...

"Everything was going well, but the constraints imposed by the pandemic have imploded this structure and I find myself in a sinister in-between, between a feeling of vertigo and uselessness," she says. "This is precisely what I wanted to avoid."

To tell the truth, one sometimes has the feeling of living in a world where time, organized as an arrow (past-present-future), has turned into a huge mess — like in Christopher Nolan's Tenet. Inspired by the work of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Kip S. Thorne, the film features super-agents surfing on temporal paradoxes to thwart a vast global conspiracy. As we go back and forth from lockdowns to reopenings, we feel this same total desynchronization of time that the space-time castaway experiences playing hopscotch with the space-time continuum.

One sometimes has the feeling of living in a world where time has turned into a huge mess — Photo: Simon Abrams

Ruth Ogden, a researcher at John Moores University in Liverpool, interviewed a sample of people who self-isolated this spring. In a study published in the journal PLOS One, Ogden estimates that 80% of these people felt a sense of distortion in their relationship to time. She also established that the stress related to this perception was directly linked to their "level of social satisfaction," i.e. the number and quality of interactions with others. This finding, according to the sociologist, explains why young people, who are also the most active, feel that their days pass more quickly, unlike their elders, who are less busy and more isolated.

"What disturbs us is that we have extra time that we can control, but we can't project ourselves into the future," says France Marchand, a psychologist based in Brest. "Not being able to be sure of anything refers to ancestral fears, those of emptiness, of missing, of dying."

Marchand advises her patients to open an old-fashioned paper planner. "Day by day, they will write down at least one action to be carried out so that the brain can visualize this projection and become anchored in real life again," she says.

In the face of floating, corrupted, and arrhythmic time, inventing new rituals becomes an act of resistance. To help herself shut down her computer for good at the end of a day working from home, one 40-year-old advertising executive says she now does 35 minutes of exercise on her stationary bike. That's about the time it takes her to get back from work. Another daily landmark: a sacrosanct yoga session on Zoom.

Having broken out of working at a distance but forced to juggle the different communication channels used by his various employers, the cartoonist Soulcié wonders about the validity of the immutable weekly tempo that used to be the hallmark of his existence. "Over the past six months, I've noticed that when I have a lot to do and work hard for several weeks in a row, I'm much better, as if I were in the zone," he says. "So that's what you have to alternate: work tunnels and real, regular breaks, if possible doing something that really changes the daily routine at home."

Sociologist Jean Viard describes the period we're living in as "tragic," but insists that it also affords new opportunities. "We have to reinvent ourselves, to put ourselves in a fighting position," he says. "Let's create new habits. We can "go to the theater" in the morning, develop a second world of work by creating new community spaces that are neither the office nor the home, build an inventive digital society, perhaps move... Otherwise, we will fall into depression, lock ourselves up in our castles."

And then there's the question of how this elastic time — this "endless day," to quote President Emmanuel Macron — impacts what we wear. Will we stop using watches? That remains to be seen, but it does seem fair to say that with all the work being done at home, the most palpable changes may be in our office attire.

"With teleworking, presentation codes have evolved in a less formal and more diversified sense," says Jean-Marc Liduena, a partner at the professional services network KPMG. "It's a way of dressing not unprofessionally but more relaxed."

Popular styles include open jackets or turtlenecks for men and less strict outfits with more accessories and flat-heeled shoes for women. This trend seems destined to become the new standard for companies. Even in banking and finance, the days of the tie and suit may be over.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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