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My Father Leaned on Routine to Create Stability. Now I Do, Too.

Even by suburban standards, my father’s adherence to routine was astonishing. He took the same train out in the morning and the same train back at night, from the one job at the one company where he worked for almost 47 years, in the unchanging uniform of suit, tie and fedora. He had a worn leather breviary stuffed with prayers and Mass cards he’d been collecting for years, and he read through them all at the dining-room table every night during the 11 o’clock news. He drank exactly one Scotch-and-soda a week, Sunday afternoons during the game. We had the same vacation destination every year, often during the same calendar week.

Granted, my father was by nature not the most imaginative guy: He was a bookkeeper whose job was to keep numbers lining up tidily. But his embrace of routine was also his way of fighting back against a world that kept spinning out of control. By the time he was in his mid-30s, he had lived through the pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression and two world wars. After he married my mother in the late 1940s, much of his life was spent navigating her schizophrenia, which emerged early in their marriage. There were extended stretches when he had to fill the roles of both parents, and that might have been what sent him over the edge, or at least made him demand that a new hand be dealt. Instead he doubled down on what he knew, and it got our family through some dicey times, while also helping to forge his identity. He was steady Jerry, the man who didn’t bail, who held the fort when so much of everything else around him was collapsing. Routine, so often disparaged as the way of the drone, became for my father practically a badge of honor.

I absorbed my father’s penchant for routine early; for years when I was a kid my allowance was $1 a week, and I almost always spent it every Saturday at a record store, even some weeks when there wasn’t any new music I was craving. It was just who I was. Every Friday night from ages 13 to 23, I compiled my own weekly music charts, complete with “bullets” indicating that a song had gained in my estimation since the previous week. As my father did, I’ve worked for decades at the same job. I studied with one piano teacher for 30 years, until his death and long after people kept saying, “Don’t you know how to play already?” I’ve practiced Pilates with the same teacher, every Tuesday and Thursday, for nine years, about the same amount of time I also showed up at my local coffee joint every morning (iced, year round). A friend teases me occasionally about all this sameness, asking, “Are you growing in your artistry?” Even as my career has generally flourished and I can still happily make it through the piano part of Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark,” it’s a question I’ve often asked myself, as the creative in me can chafe against the roteness. And sometimes there are Thursday mornings when I just want to sleep in, or days when even the best iced coffee can get a little boring.

But the world now is anything but boring. For me the isolation of being a single man on the verge of 60 in a small city apartment, of the long game of keep-away, has led to a sense that the walls are closing in a little bit more each day. So I push back the way my father did, by flexing the muscle of routine: I still practice Pilates, with the same teacher, a few times a week by Zoom, attend church services livestreamed from my parish every Sunday, play the same album, “The Main Thing,” the latest by the New Jersey band Real Estate, a longtime favorite, once a day. Its hypermelodicism provides the comfort of the known, the kind of sure thing that, like so much else these days, you can’t seem to find on the shelves anymore.

Even the most notable new experience of the lockdown quickly fell into a pattern. In mid-April, I started chatting with a man on a dating app, like me a journalist and a runner. The initial flurry of sexty flirtation was soon replaced by a circadian rhythm: Invariably he’d be awake before me and text, and invariably the first thing I would do after I opened my eyes was reach for my phone to look for him. We shared details of our runs, our families, the weather in our faraway states. It didn’t matter that those details could be utterly banal; what mattered was their regularity, the inevitability of knowing someone out there cared.

We’ve heard a lot about the opportunity the pandemic has provided to remake and redesign. But it has reminded me of something else, something my father knew intrinsically: that routine can itself be a means of creation. By digging in his heels, he was digging a path for my mother to find her way back to sanity, and for his children to have the stability they needed to thrive. His routines, like all acts of creation, were essentially acts of faith. And so have mine been. They’ve helped me believe that I can create a connection between the old world and the new, unmasked one, whenever it appears, with my physical and emotional muscle largely unatrophied, my ears still trained on melody. And that I’ll have the fortification to face whatever might be lurking out there in the meantime. I’m up to Day 81 of listening to that Real Estate album, and while it’s starting to sound a little familiar, riffs and lyric lines continue to pop out. “If I could just stand still,” they sing. On to Day 82.

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