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Pool: Postcards from my soixantine

Journal of the Plague Year

In 1722, Daniel Defoe coined the word “soixantaine” to denote a period of 60 days isolation. It is a period of time half again as long as a quarantine, whose original meaning denoted a 40-day period.

Quarantine” comes from the Italian “quaranta giorno” meaning “40 days.” The term dates to 1377, when the Venetians, realizing the Black Death was spread by ships’ crews, started the practice of isolating sailors for 40 days.

The reason for the number 40 was probably a Biblical reference, but in any case, the time period worked well. Plague ship crews either recovered or died.

Soixantine” never caught on. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it “rare,” with only one citation from Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year.” I encountered the word almost two months ago as I read that lightly fictionalized account of bubonic plague in 17th-century London.

Last week I completed a soixantine, as it marked two months since school was abruptly cancelled the Friday before the spring break holiday would have begun.

I have mostly stayed home, having groceries and other goods delivered. We have been adopted by a little tuxedo cat we named Cuthbert (before we realized he was a she) and I’ve taken her to the vet, whose no-contact procedures were everything I could have asked for.

While we haven’t even ordered take-out food, I have twice met some old friends at an open-air gazebo on public property. They are taking the isolation seriously. Nevertheless, I made a point of staying upwind. In navies during the age of sail, this was called the “weather gauge,” and conferred tactical advantage.

For the first couple of weeks, it was almost impossible to tell when it was the weekend. Then my wife returned to online work. She has made the end of the dining room table her work office, and she spends time in meetings with colleagues and with parents and students.

Her students are very young children with special needs. It’s impossible to work with them the way she did in the classroom, but she does her best. Hearing the way she speaks to these youngsters always warms my heart. She loves these little people.

We got a stationary bike early on and it has been great to be able to exercise. My wife watches streaming workout videos; I just put on headphones and listen to music. We watch little TV, but she likes Malcolm Gladwell podcasts.

I’m very proud of my wife’s industriousness. She brought out an old sewing machine and is diligent in producing useful masks, which have gone through three different stages of improvement.

They are cloth masks with a pocket for inserting blue paper shop rags as additional filter. She has improved the fit and comfort. We have mailed masks to friends and family.

She likes to make things with her hands; I’m not blessed with that enthusiasm. Nevertheless, I willingly do less skilled chores like ironing and cutting fabric.

I’ve been working my way steadily through my library, trying not to order new books, though I couldn’t resist a popular history. “Justinian’s Flea” is about the bubonic plague that devastated the Eastern Roman Empire when it looked poised for a renewal under Constantinople’s last great Emperor.

We’re very privileged to be able to stay home. We like each other, are never bored, and feel we are doing something positive. Not everyone is so fortunate. We are grateful, and are keeping ourselves healthy for the work ahead.

Soon enough there will be much to repair.

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— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School. His column appears Tuesday.

Today's Bible verse

“Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”

James 1:2-3

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