Massive Marlin or COVID-19: Five Survival Tricks From Santiago at Sea.

Photo Courtesy of John Nielson

I’m in a hell of a battle myself. Cornered by COVID. No control over the situation. At sea with so much uncertainty. Nauseous from the same ol’, same ol’ daily routine. Dizzy from squinting behind TV talking heads to see what novels they have on their bookshelves. (At least that’s what I do.)

Clearly, I needed new ideas to stay steady, healthy, and productive.

I turned to a classic, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. It’s a legendary Man vs. Nature conflict. I was curious to see what tricks Santiago could teach me to use in these trying times.

Stuck in salao? I’m hoping faith will pull me through.

You probably know the story… Santiago was an old fisherman stuck in “salao, which is the worst form of unlucky,” — going 84 days without catching a big fish. But he had faith. And a treasure trove of seasoned smarts he sourced during his epic battle. After a massive marlin finally takes his bait, Santiago is powerless to haul in the creature. So he lets the marlin pull him out to sea to wear down his enemy. Santiago’s strategy was to finish off the fish after it weakened. Two days and two nights pass. Santiago holds onto the line every single minute of their duel.

Hang on. Let out plenty of line. Tire your adversary. Don’t rush in. Conserve energy. Be smart. I was hooked and already feeling more hopeful.

We landed a big one in COVID. Here are five things Santiago thought, said, and taught me about winning the fight over time.

1. Talking to my hands is OK.

Yes, I talk to myself when I’m stressed. Maybe I don’t babble on in front of my wife at the dinner table. But my dog’s a good listener. When we go for walks, he hears me vent about virtual office politics. When I go on bike rides, tall pines calmly sway during my angry rants; ripples on the lakes dissolve my desperate pleas for normalcy.

Shrinks say all of that’s OK. Talking to myself helps me gain psychological distance from current experiences, which is useful for regulating emotions. But every minute, I battle to keep that self-talk positive: isolation is not an excuse for nasty, personal interrogation, I remind myself.

“You’re doing OK.” “It is all right.” “GTAH! GTAH!” (The last one’s short for “Good Things Are Happening!”) The more I shout out my real feelings, the more I feel like I’m not going crazy; I’m going in a decent direction. Just like Santiago as the big fish dragged him out to deeper and darker waters.

2. Stay nourished.

Got it. Squealing, raw shrimp isn’t your thing. Mine either. But experimenting with new foods to strengthen my resolve to pull through this has been fun. For example, I’ve been buying out my local grocery store of Siggi’s 0% milkfat Icelandic yogurt when they get a shipment. Topped with granola, blueberries (proven to lower your blood pressure), and raspberries, I’m good to write with a clear head and full belly for hours.

Weekends? Sometimes my healthy habits fade and bad ones creep in. I like beer — especially Bell’s Two-hearted Ale, which clocks in at 7% ABV. But too many of those and I do talk gibberish out loud and invite the cray-cray. I may not be the only one: Nielsen data shows that overall sales of spirits spiked by 55% at the end of March.

Santiago liked beer but sounds like he moderated. Me? I found Partake from Canada: an NA beer with only ten calories in their Pale brew. Mix in a few of those and I hit my weekend writing goals and stay married. Not bad, eh?

3. Set your lines well.

Have to be prepared for anything, right?

I love the measured precision of Santiago’s lines trolling at all the different depths. With that approach, there’s an admission he doesn’t have certainty about where the big fish will bite. So his strategy is to sweep several layers of the vast ocean beneath him and not be attached to narrow-minded thinking.

I’ve heard a lot about “the new normal.” I’ve wondered to what degree do my personal biases define what that looks like for me? Do I need more of the same in my life? Am I truly open to new ways of being with others and with myself? Not sure. I scare myself as road rage still simmers when I’m behind someone doing 60 in the left-hand lane on the freeway during COVID-light rush hour. That’s nothing compared to the real social distancing that may permanently be in our future.

Staying open to broader possibilities — setting my lines for many different scenarios — helps me breathe easier. It’s a new mindset I’m working on. Too stuck too soon makes for an edgy and very impatient John Nielson.

4. Don’t think. Endure.

Tell me about it. If I dive into CNN or any of the three other news apps I have on my phone (first problem?) too early in the day, I feel depressed and unfocused for a long time. I’m also a hockey fan, so I do a lot of checking to see when the NHL will get back to regular. (News flash: not for at least another six months, so forget about the damn hockey!) But you know how it goes. Click here. Read this. Jump there. Drill down deeper and deeper. When I do that, I have monkey-mind by 7 am. Abandoning my daily intentions that early in the day is stupid.

But with all the days blurring into one another and no help distinguishing them from the same outfit I wear all week, it’s been challenging to avoid sloppy thinking. What’s helped me is to borrow my dad-in-law’s hair clippers, trust my wife not to take off an ear, groom daily, and continue my monthly H45 Just For Men application. Trite, I know. But even though our company doesn’t do video conferencing because it sucks up too much corporate bandwidth, I still start every day as if I could go live with my co-workers and friends at any moment.

One definition of “endure” is “to bear without resistance or with patience.”

In his 1952 New York Times review of The Old Man and The Sea, Robert Davis wrote that Santiago learned humility while in his grand fight with the marlin. Have I?

5. Stay the course.

Fools rush in brandishing a false sense of confidence. From the very beginning, Santiago knew he was in for the fight of his life. He forced nothing, however, even though his life and livelihood were at stake, too. He positioned, paced, and prepared himself for the unpredictable, allowing the fish to come to him.

Have I done a good enough job at that? Or am I rushing in too soon? Dammit. I took my mask off to read cereal labels at the grocery store and forgot to put it on before I ordered my sandwich meats at the deli. Want to see social distancing best practices collapse in a heartbeat? Join the last-minute crowd at Target hunting for a Mother’s Day card as I did. Friends came over for a bonfire last weekend: we were good outside, but after using the bathroom inside, we hung out, laughed at hacked at each other in the kitchen like everything was normal. Like what happened to Santiago, am I unconsciously making room for mako sharks to destroy the COVID cover I’ve maintained so far?

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently tweeted, “The only thing that’s changed about COVID-19 is your chance of catching it.”

I’m taking it from Santiago. Digging in, staying put, waiting for it to be light.

“Density is our enemy.”

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo said that at one of his news conferences. He was talking about how easily COVID spreads in highly populated areas. It also reminds me that the denser my thinking about all that’s ahead, the more trouble I get into and the less responsible I am to everyone around me.

No wonder The Old Man and The Sea helped me in so many ways. Alone at sea, heroically battling the monster on his line, becoming one with the suffering and the beauty of the entire journey with everyone on it, Santiago models the best ways to survive the fight with respect and resilience.

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