What We Couldn’t Live Without During our Quarantine

June 05, 2020 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

We’re not yet safely out of the woods. In fact, we fear it may be a long time since the two of us want to have a vaccine before we throw caution to the wind and hurry back to our favorite stores, restaurants, happy hours, and kids’ homes that require a long car or plane trip. While many days have proved lonely, we are coping, thanks to social media, our work, and some of our favorite possessions and experiences within our homes. Here’s what we think helped sustain each of us during the first days and months of self-isolation. 

What Barbara couldn’t live without: 

  1. Red Nespresso coffee machine and milk frother. A good cup of coffee has always been Barbara’s early morning drink of choice. She stocked up on a healthy supply of caffeinated pods in different flavors to help give her a jolt to get out of bed. It could have been so easy to stay put under those warm, protective covers. 
  2. Red painted doors and window boxes. Soon after she moved into her 1797 house almost 10 years ago, Barbara painted the door of her shed—within view from her kitchen back door--a fire-engine Benjamin Moore red. She used the same paint on the sheds’ two window boxes and then painted its faux windows with her versions of two favorite paintings—Claude Monet’s “Water Lily Pond, Green Harmony” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Whenever she’s in her kitchen, she can look out and glimpse the cheery façade, which brightened her mood even when it wasn’t.
  3. Silver Palate cookbook. Since she bought the book in the early 1970s, after the authors had operated a takeout food shop on New York City’s Upper West Side, which Barbara loved to visit, the book has been a go-to choice for good, dependable recipes. During the pandemic, she made its zucchini bread several times, one of the best she’s tasted, and which turned out to be as good as she remembered. She used a trick from Margaret to keep slices fresh. She cut the bread, wrapped each individually, and froze the whole, taking out one at a time.
  4. Portraits of her daughters. The oil paintings were painted by St. Louisan artist Chick Early more than 30-plus years ago of each daughter when 3 years old. They hang in her dining room and some day will be gifted to the girls when each has wall space. For now, they bring smiles to Barbara each time she passes through the room since she and her daughters haven’t been together in more than three months.
  5. Cosmetics. She knows her hair has become an absolute mess—long, curly and gray at the roots, but she’s not ready to color it herself or have her beau try to help or cut it. So, she’s tried to make some of her other features look OK. That’s meant continuing her skincare regimen, recommended by one daughter who sells the Rodan + Fields’ line of products. Her favorite during the first weeks and months was its big tub of active hydration Body Replenish lotion. When she participates in a Zoom meeting, she also puts on her favorite new lipstick from the store Face, a bright cheerful red known as “Summer” and dabs on some of its also new “Strawberry” blush.
  6. Jigsaw puzzle. A gift from her daughters, a 500-piece puzzle inspired by the book and movie, “Little Women,” became an addiction after Barbara started putting together the puzzle. She’d work on it for 30-minute spells twice a day, until she was finished. It was challenging but her 6-year-old grandson, a puzzle expert, advised her to do the border first and “be patient.” She was, and it was finished within a week. A friend has loaned her more puzzles. Great fun she has found.
  7. Wooden rolling pin. A birthday gift from Margaret, the French-style pin came in handy while she bakes—and that she does lots of in her free time, whether rugelach or pastry crust for a pie or quiche. She also uses it to pound and flatten chicken for chicken piccata, a new dish she first made during the pandemic and which has become a regular part of her repertoire. 
  8. Flannel pajamas. Because the climate gets cold in winter where Barbara lives, she often sleeps in flannel PJs, several gifted to her in cute patterns by her beau. But as it became clear that the pandemic was going to extend for months, she added more pairs so she could rotate them since she often stayed in one pair during the day and switched only in the late afternoon to another. With days warmer and more outings outdoors, she’s now getting back to wearing “real” clothing.
  9. Bon Appetit Because she loves to cook or think about cooking, the arrival of the magazine each month brings great joy, advice and inspiration, starting with editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport’s letter. The recent May issue may mean she tries a recipe for honey-chipotle shrimp tacos, purple sticky rice, or blistered green beans with fried shallots.
  10. View from my Window (Wales). Barbara knew she wouldn’t travel anywhere for months or even longer, so when she learned about the new Facebook website, A View from My Window, she was intrigued seeing all the photos so many have posed from their windows. She posted one from one of her windows and loves seeing the travelogue change daily. Readers post where they live, encourage others to share where they are reading the post from, comment, and wish one another well. She’s especially loved seeing photos of places she’s never been such as South Africa, Dubai, and Norway, but also relished views of her favorite countries’ cities or villages such as those in Switzerland, England, and Italy. And she always inquired how citizens of cities such as Milan, very hard hit early on, were faring when she texted back a “hello, from the Hudson River Valley, N.Y.” The site has certainly made the world seem smaller and brought home the point: everybody is after the same goal whether they live with views of mountains, oceans, or urban streets--stay home, stay well, be healthy. 

What Margaret couldn’t live without: 

  1. Her iPad. She loves the convenience and size--it’s like an iPhone on steroids. She uses it for entertainment to read books, text message, and stream movies, mostly period pieces on Netflix and Amazon Prime such as “The Crown,” “Middlemarch,” “Daniel Deronda,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and so many more. She also likes the fact that it has a long battery life and rarely needs to be rebooted. It’s so convenient to flop on the bed or sofa and pull up her favorite read. As a bonus, she can adjust the type size for her ageing eyes and if she doesn't know the meaning of a word, she can highlight it and the definition pops up on the screen.
  2. Virtual tutoring. Twice a week, she gets her kid fix on a screen when she tutors a second-grade boy via Zoom. There are pros and cons to this arrangement.  Tutoring from a screen in her home is easier on one level because she avoids having to take two subways and walk 16 blocks, which she did when tutoring at a public school in East Harlem. On the other hand, there is no substitute for human interaction. She cannot discipline the child on a screen when he bounces around in his chair, refuses to focus, or screams at his brother who teases him during our sessions. She has enjoyed enormously learning some of the tools used in virtual tutoring and feeling like sort of a techie—but not really.
  3. Exercise videos on YouTube. They keep her moving so she doesn't feel like a slug. More important, exercise gives her a burst of energy. Because she is quarantined and doesn’t relish going outside unless the weather is gorgeous, a friend suggested that she does power walking with Leslie Sansone YouTube videos. There are one, two-mile versions and on up. It starts with a warmup, speeds up with the beat, and incorporates four different leg and arm movements. It’s free, she can do it any time and, in her bedroom, after she moves the furniture, and it doesn’t require any special skill or equipment.
  4. Dorie Greenspan’s Dorie’s Cookies. Barbara bought this book for her a few years ago to feed her cookie eating and baking addictions. When she makes a batch, whether Snowy-topped Brownie Drops, Ms. Corbitt’s Pecan Cake Fingers, Princeton Gingersnaps, or Lemon Sugar Cookies, she loves to share the spoils with her nearest and dearest. To get creative, she will sometimes do a riff of some recipes, add a different kind of nut, substitute honey for sugar, heavy cream for butter, or dried cranberries or cherries for raisins. She does not think cookies are only for snacking or as dessert after a meal only and has made some to eat with her morning coffee such as Dorie’s “They Might Be Breakfast Cookies” with raisins, dried apples, dried cranberries, and oats. What a way to start the day.   
  5. Root touch up from Clairol.  Her hair was looking gray, wiry, and dry. Root touch to the rescue. Her one sister, who colors and cuts, no less, her own hair, recommended it, bought it for her, and then gave her a tutorial in applying it. She tends to make messes, so her sister suggested that she put plastic bags everywhere in case of splattering; it looked like she was having her apartment painted. It worked and did cover some of the gray. She felt so much better when she went on her next Zoom, proud to announce that she had colored her own hair. Even if it didn’t look terrific, she felt prettier.
  6. Walking in her hood along Riverside Drive. This activity keeps her sane, is a great way to spend part of her day when she does go out, and clears her head when she's been at her computer too long. She is so lucky to live near the Hudson River in proximity to Riverside Park, another fine example of landscape architect Frederick Olmstead’s work (he designed Prospect Park and Central Park). It’s without a doubt, one of the most picturesque and relaxing city walks you can take in this crazy, busy, packed, fast-paced town.  
  7. New Yorker magazine and Opera News. Every week in her mailbox is the New Yorker, the eponymous magazine about her new city that contains humor, great writing, and substance. It’s storytelling at its best. She finds herself pulled into such stories as the one about Mitch McConnell, “Enabler-In-Chief” or the profile on Dr. Fauci or the piece about Lionel Shriver, the writer, Looking for Trouble. And every month, Opera News, her other guilty magazine pleasure, a gift for joining the Metropolitan Opera, arrives. She enjoys the stories behind the scenes and the profiles on such opera superstars as Tamara Wilson, “Magical Humanity,” or the opera cum family business piece on Danielle de Niese and Gus Christie, “Mr. Christie’s Miracle,” about the family who founded the Glyndebourne Opera House and Opera Festival at their family estate in East Sussex, England.
  8. Two pairs of Ralph Lauren sweatpants. Dress for comfort not success as many of us have learned who currently work from home as we dial back on our preening. Despite the holes and threadbare knees, these are the most comfortable pants she owns. Warm and fuzzy with an elastic waist to expand when she's eaten too many cookies, they fit the bill and her too. In fact, before the coronavirus hit, sweatpants were in. Even Anna Wintour was spotted wearing them on Instagram.
  9. New York City library’s eBooks. Once she finally was able to load the GetSimplyE, the library’s free e-reader app, she discovered a world of digital books for children that she can use in her virtual tutoring. And, of course, there are plenty left for adults too. Recently, the library sent out an invite to read The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel to access it through the app--no holds and no waiting for the book--and then participate the library’s “Get Lit” virtual book club series in partnership with WNYC (New York Public Radio).
  10. New York Times crossword puzzles. Her passion for puzzles began a couple of years ago with the daily New York Times mini which she now does online each morning. She enjoys being able to digitally delete a wrong answer rather than having to erase. However, the main crossword puzzle must be printed out. It gets more difficult as the week goes on. So, she started with Monday’s and Tuesday’s puzzles and added Wednesday recently. She's learned to do it in pencil which gives her permission to guess and to make mistakes that can be erased. She'll fill in the short words and words she knows first to get a good start on the grid and then try to guess the rest. As a result of her puzzle mania during Covid-19, she has boosted her pop culture quotient. She learned that Bluth is the family name on “Arrested Development,” and Flanders of “The Simpsons” is Ned.
  11. New York Philharmonic Thursday Night Broadcasts. What a treat for patrons and members of the New York Phil to hear their “best hits” free online every Thursday night at 7:30. Listening to these re-broadcasts reduces her stress and improves her sleep. Over the past few months, she's kicked back and savored such concerts as, a Live From Lincoln Center episode featuring soprano and soloist Renée Fleming in songs by Mozart and Richard Strauss conducted by then Music Director Kurt Masur; the 2007 Live From Lincoln Centerepisode featuring violinist Joshua Bell performing with then Music Director Lorin Maazel conducting, and a co-presentation of the New York Phil and Lincoln Center of the 1982 Great Performances episode featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman, conducted by David Zinman. Nothing could be better for the brain and the soul, much needed “medicine” with good side effects in these troubling times.


  • Rena

    Jun 12, 2020

    Fun to read all about your favorite things you can’t live without. All of them sounded great! Stay safe!

  • Harriet Baron

    Jun 05, 2020

    I so enjoyed reading your favorites. How about a good read?

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