Lessons from a whiteboard

Tuesday, March 31, 2020 - 1:03pm

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Design by Lauren Kuzee

Solomon and Matt are roommates. As roommates, they typically only see each other in the morning, maybe in between classes and before bed. However, COVID-19 said “LOL” and they have been shut together in their apartment for three weeks. These pieces, one by each roommate, were written in whatever fraction of isolation they could find on opposite sides of their shared living room.

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Solomon:

My biggest pet peeve is people using the idiom “It’s a small world.” It is often used to describe how privileged worlds overlap with one another (in my experience, the intersection of coastal Jews and the University of Michigan), rather than the actual size of the world. I have delivered PowerPoint presentations on the subject many times. But since we began social distancing, I have begun using the phrase unironically. 

Matt and I were randomly assigned as roommates in South Quad Residence Hall. Though our beds were four feet apart then, we have never lived as close together as we do now. Our world has literally become the size of our apartment, our rooms separated only by the staple room of college houses — where one lives, dines and exists — and the kitchen whose full sink greets us every morning. As a result, we have perhaps learned more about one another in the past three weeks than we ever had, and are figuring out how to exist in a non-stop friendship. 

Three weeks ago, on the first day of social distancing, I brought a 2x4 whiteboard (formerly for our other roommate’s physics homework and personal account balance) out to the living room and nailed it to the wall. I was excited about it because I like making elaborate plans, and wanted to have agency over our future routines. Matt seemed skeptical, sitting on the couch as I divided up the board into the sections that would define our life. However, since then, it has become a mainstay of our life.

I titled the boxes on the upper-right corner “What are you?”, initially as a joke, but I quickly realized it was actually fitting. Our boxes show how we want to spend quarantine, our idealized vision for this unexpected time in our lives. Matt has continuously redone his box to reflect his biggest projects, including GarageBand exploration, Minecraft time limits for the day and to “finish the fucking play.” I have not erased anything from my section, which has progressively gotten fuller, explicitly laying out my aspirational basic daily plan (meditation, working out, journaling, etc.) and the long-term projects I have not started (clearing space off of my iPhone 5, research ideas and cooking adventures). 

It’s not just “What are you?” that uncovers our internal desires. We have connected more with every new communal section. Matt has taken ownership over the “Intellectual Flexing” section, where we write down the titles of the books we have read since we began isolating. Two weeks in, and he is already at five. (Buoyed by his rapid reading rate, he has since launched a bookstagram to literally no one’s surprise.)

My favorite section is “Principles,” where we lay out a mini-constitution to guide how we are supposed to share the space. To little surprise, the principles have not been followed, either because they were impossible to accomplish (“Give space”) or because they risk unsettling the equilibrium we have established (“Air grievances”). Our other, notably not Jewish, roommate has taken to chronicling the time we spend here by creating a new calendar system oriented around Shabbat dinner. Even in communal spaces, we have charted our own territories. 

I thought quarantine would strain our friendship by revealing all the ways in which our personalities are incompatible and how our interests do not overlap. To some extent, that has been true: I am not going to play Minecraft or Mario Kart, our band practice sessions have not really gotten off the ground and our sleep schedules remain out of sync. 

Yet, instead of just emphasizing how we are different, we are learning to coexist only as the most honest versions of ourselves. Quarantine has shown a more confident version of Matt than I have ever experienced before. He has been able to take our lifestyle change in stride, still waking up early to read, abiding by his whiteboard goals and remaining deliberate.

I have not had the same smooth transition. Without my usual stimuli of meetings and events, I anxiously await new full-length soccer games getting posted on YouTube and continue to cook without any big-picture vision — just assembling vegetables, carbs and some flavor in any combination.  

It has made me think about the difference between quarantine friendships and those we are used to. In most friendships, I have an escape route, but not here. I cannot take a break from Matt or my other roommate for a day. It has forced me to reveal the parts of my personality I usually reserve for myself, like my addiction to soccer media and inability to stay focused or fix broken items around the apartment. These details that may fall under the radar during the hectic pace of our everyday now are seen and felt.  

Our situation’s inescapability has also forced a level of honesty that is often hard to reach in masc friendships (friendships between masculine-identifying people). We are working on being more consistently honest with one another, airing out our grievances and asking for feedback. Without the ability to get the kind of emotional support we get from other parts of our lives in our normal lives, we have had to do more for one another than we used to. 

I don’t want to think about how COVID-19 will impact my future, be it from worse job prospects or loved ones lost, so instead I am looking for quarantine’s silver linings. I know how lucky I am to be able to stay in Ann Arbor with Matt and my other roommates, and together we are learning how to share ourselves with minimal presentation or performance. Even after living together for almost two years, we are just now learning to coexist.

***

Matt: 

Dressed in presentable tops and less-presentable bottoms for virtual class, Solomon and I stare up at the whiteboard hanging in our living room. Our daily to-do lists, goals for the week, list of movies to watch and an elaborate time-keeping system revolving around communal meals and our aloe plant photoshoot schedule adorn its scuffed canvas. Meant to give our quarantined lives order, the whiteboard has since become another roommate, a projection of our cramped, hectic thoughts in this apartment.

“So what’s the order this week?” Solomon asks with an Expo marker bouncing between his fingers.

The recycled air that has been hanging in our living room since March 11 is filled with a mix of serious contemplation and nihilism.

“I think I did well. Read some books, started an essay,” I offer in the silence.

Solomon acquiesces and writes my name at the top of the “Who’s Winning Quarantine” list. Part of me is ashamed of trying too hard. Another is proud of my powering through the anxiety surrounding the state of the world and actually maintaining a semblance of my past schedule.

I don’t quite remember when the list appeared. It should be easy to recall a moment like this from the past two weeks. However, two weeks can feel like years when you spend every waking moment — and sometimes sleeping ones, if our nap times align — with the same person.

Before the United States began taking COVID-19 as seriously as it should have been months ago, we would share the highs and lows of our days if our paths happened to cross. Now, our daily highs, lows and the many shades in between are on full display without the need for a nightly debrief. Even in our rooms, I know if Solomon is on one of his many daily BlueJeans calls or if he’s doing laundry just from the small noises that leak throughout our apartment.

Our to-do lists are under a microscope in quarantine. Our new, two-dimensional roommate, looming over our living room, was supposed to maintain a sense of balance in our day-to-day. Instead, the whiteboard has become hell-bent on pitting our schedules against one another to see who is making the most of what everyone considers to be a shitty situation. 

Luckily, Solomon and I have been able to resist the temptation to compare our whiteboard schedules. During quarantine, I’ve embodied the full spectrum — from barely getting out of bed to planning my schedule minute-by-minute. Each day begins with a roll of the dice: Would crossing tasks off the whiteboard or making cup after cup of coffee and curling up with a book make me fulfilled today? 

I’m so thankful to have a roommate that greets me with a “I’m so proud of you” no matter what decision I make. I try to do the same. I do this to be a supportive partner in this quarantine dream but also to show our whiteboard roommate it’s our quarantine and we get to choose the coping mechanisms.

Solomon once wrote an opinion piece for this fine journalistic establishment about “The Grind” and our tendency to valorize being busy. Since our world is our living room for the foreseeable future, I’m learning to live über-communally without comparing myself to Solomon’s levels of productivity. 

Everyone and their cousins are writing think-pieces on what they think the world is going to look like when we reach the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. I will not add to this cacophony. However, I do hope that when social distancing is a by-gone practice, I take my personal wants instead of outward expectations into account when planning my day. I have a long way to go, but if there’s one thing we both share the most, it’s time.

Solomon Medintz is a senior studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics and is a former Opinion Columnist on the Daily. He can be reached at smedintz@umich.edu.

Matt Harmon is a senior studying International Studies and Playwriting and is a former Statement Deputy Editor. He can be reached at mcharm@umich.edu.