Classicist in Disguise: Second Response

Quinn Dombrowski
Received October 30 2020
Citation: Dombrowski, Quinn. 2020. “Classicist in Disguise: Second Response” Epoiesen http://dx.doi.org/10.22215/epoiesen/2020.5
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Quinn Dombrowski is the Academic Technology Specialist in the Library and the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford University. (qad@stanford.edu) ORCID: 0000-0001-5802-6623.

This piece is a response to Thompson’s Classicist in Disguise.

As soon as I finished reading Erin L. Thompson’s “Classicist in Disguise”, I knew what I’d do for a response. It was the beginning of March 2020, and despite the rapidly deteriorating COVID-19 situation worldwide, I was confident it would blow over quickly.

As someone who grew up in a small town, unpronounceable by outsiders (Puyallup), and best known for being the home of the state fair, “Classicist in Disguise” spoke to me. Even more so, as a person who picked up degrees in Slavic Linguistics plus a Master’s of Library and Information Science, spent 10 years working in IT, and had made a shift to a position in a non-English literature department at an institution where the unspoken departmental dress code was far more formal than I was accustomed to, living in Berkeley, CA. I had to choose between my preferred androgyny and my love for bright colors, and so I gave up my pants and hoodies on workdays, and sewed myself a wardrobe of colorful dresses. My kids — then ages 5, 3, and 1— would gape at me when I’d get home from work; they’d never seen me wear a dress before I started this job. But in time, I settled into this split personality: work-me, always in a dress, smiling and nodding through discussions of literary theory where I didn’t have the first clue about the theorists or the texts under discussion. And home-me, in hoodies and comfortable pants, parent to three small children, who escaped a rural-turned-suburban town to live the kind of urban life I fantasized about as a kid.

For my response, I was going to sew a dress that combined some of my old Puyallup Fair t-shirts, and some of my kids’ drawings printed on fabric. And I was going to wear it to work, take a picture, and write about it all.

A week later, I was no longer going to work. My kids were no longer in school. And so began the strange time warp that stretches on as I write this, on Thursday, March 242nd, 2020. My dresses are gathering dust in the closet. My hoodies are fading from being in constant rotation. I’ve started to sew new pants, as my old ones no longer fit comfortably after more than seven months of a diet that involves too much beer, Cheez-Its, and eating my feelings in take-out form — I mean, “supporting local businesses”.

During all this time, I haven’t stopped thinking about the Haji, or the striking drawings through which Thompson retold his story. I wondered what impact this pandemic, and being cut off from outside human contact, would’ve had on him. Identities are forged and reinforced through retelling one’s story, and through interaction with others. What if the Haji spent seven months, twelve months, eighteen months, only seeing his wife face-to-face? When he emerged back into the world, would he still be the Haji? Or would he have dropped those carefully-learned habits, one after another, as his wife’s devout Catholicism wore away at that persona? Would he return to being the Haji, rusty at first, but with increasing fluency? So many people, including myself, still dream of a return to some kind of “normal” even if it has to be a “new normal”. When I dream, in those beautiful stretches of sleep between blunts of insomnia, I still often dream of the subway and train that I used to take to work. My commute: two hours each way, but two hours of peace and quiet, of reading and writing, of becoming my work-self in a space away from family and children. Nobody singing that song that’s currently the #1 hit for singing in the car on the way to the first grade learning pod and socially distanced preschool drop-off: “Happy birthday to me, I’m 103, I still go to preschool, but I miss my mommy / My mommy’s at work, she fired a jerk, the jerk was so hungry, he ate my homework.”

It was impossible to get a haircut in Berkeley for the longest time, and even now, I’m not thrilled at the prospect of that much contact with another person. When my hair gets long enough to annoy me, I grab the scissors and started chopping. Early on, I dyed it bright green, so I could reduce myself to a hovering face in Zoom, with the help of a bright-green turtleneck and matching bed sheet behind me. By September, I’d grown bored, so I went with dark blue. I keep telling myself I’ll get a proper haircut and dye my hair back to its natural color as soon as it’s feasible to return to work. But sometimes, during the too-numerous insomnia hours of the night, I wonder if that day will ever come. Or when it does, will this experience have changed me too much to be able to go back to how I was before?

A strange and surprising refuge throughout all this has been “Animal Crossing: New Horizons”, a Nintendo Switch game that I picked up in March as a way to coerce my 6-year-old into practicing his reading. After watching him play for a month, I started an account of my own. Sure, virtual Quinn, resident of “the best” (as my kid named our family’s island), has messy, short, green pandemic hair. But besides that, she’s been an anchor of my other life. Every day, even when I can’t be bothered to do much more than grab whatever’s at the top of my unfolded laundry heap, I thoughtfully pick out a new outfit for virtual Quinn. I’ve often played the game with my system settings configured for the other languages of my department — ones I understand well, like Spanish and Russian, along with the ones I know less well, like French, Italian, and German. It reminds me of walking through the hallways of my department’s building, overhearing snippets of conversation. Some I can follow, others I can’t, but it feels like home. Or, at least, a “home” for the part of me that feels adrift while fielding requests for another waffle, or adjudicating a squabble over whose turn it is to play the Switch.

I hope you’re reading this from a place where you know how this ends. Where you can treat this as a snapshot from a strange and increasingly distant time. I hope you’re reading this from some better world that we’ve created in the wake of all this — one, dare I hope, more like Animal Crossing than where we are today, facing massive social inequality, relentless police violence against our Black neighbors, staring down an election and… whatever comes next. Okay, so maybe you’re not waking up every day to seek out the company of a cheerful pink hamster named Apple, or a grumpy but lovable bald eagle named Apollo. I hope you can spend your time in the company of real people, without giving any thought to the number of feet separating you or how well your mask fits. And I hope you can take a risk, as Thompson put it, on the frightening prospect of being seen. Maintaining your carefully crafted persona might be easier mediated by a screen — given the right virtual background, noise-canceling headphones, and a bedroom door that locks to keep the rest of your life at bay. But it makes for an emptier life, and at the end of the day, talking virtual animals fall so very short as neighbors, colleagues, or friends.

Cover Image British Library digitised image from page 8 of “A Poet’s Calendar” British Library

Masthead Image Portrait of Richard Burton (Erin L. Thompson)