Pandemic Nostalgia: Save a Mask, It’s Coming!

June 4, 2021

We social scientists love to come up with sharp names for social phenomenon. I’ve written a lot in this blog about anomie, Emile Durkheim’s 1897 term for the sense of normlessness that’s helped to explain the backslide into Trumpism. There’s been a lot of talk about Naomi Klein’s 2007 concept of shock doctrine again. But there are some phenomenon that still have no name, like when your walk into a bookstore or record store and immediately forget what you were looking for. Or when vintage t-shirts for a band that you know and love are being sold at Urban Outfitters to posers who never listened to the damn band. (“Name one Motorhead song! I dare you!”) There should be a name for that!

There’s another phenomenon as yet unnamed – feeling nostalgic for really horrible times. I just finished reading The Volunteer, Jack Fairweather’s epically researched 2019 book about a Polish officer who snuck into Auschwitz in 1940 and spent the next two and half years sending out reports of Nazi atrocities and organizing the camp resistance. Then when it became clear that the concentration camp had transitioned into a mass death camp, he escaped. When he was out, with good food and free from Typhus-infected lice and the stench of burning bodies, you know what he wanted to do? Go back! That world made sense, unlike the blasé attitude (that’s Georg Simmel’s concept) towards the Holocaust he found outside the camp.

I first experienced this weird feeling about a year after 9/11. The 2001 terrorist attacks had unified the nation. Republican and Democratic congress people stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless In America.” I was in Atlanta where locals covered their “Yankees Suck!” T-shirts with “I Love New York.” Sure there was some serious Islamophobia and a spike in xenophobic hate crimes, but there was also a powerful sense that we were all in this together. I miss that. Do we need another slaughter of civilians to get that feeling back?

As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, I can already feel that old itch coming back. As of today, 136 million Americans are fully vaccinated (About 41.5% of the US population). Kids are wrapping up the last of their remote learning and we even saw a movie in a movie theater last weekend! There are nearly 4 million souls worldwide to mourn (with deaths spiking in India and Vietnam) and a mental health toll that will take generations to fully see, but, at least here on the home front, you can lay off the mask-making, feverous hand-washing, and crossing the street to avoid a panting jogger. Happy days are here again.

So what’s that tinge? The dread of having to jump back into the endless rush hour commute or the race to get the kid to school on time? Not having an excuse to not hang out with boring people? Having to find your pants? (Or buy new ones because you were binging on Love Island while devouring countless mole burritos, delivered by GrubHub?) The earth got a year-long break from us as the drop in our carbon footprints let us see the horizon for the first time in a generation. (“I didn’t know the Himalayas were right there!”) Although, I imagine landfills exploded with take-out containers in 2020. Are we ready to say goodbye to those random whiffs of fresh air?

Around mid-March 2020, when it started to be clear we were going to have to hunker down for a while, I said goodbye to some life-sustaining activities, like seeing live music and being belly-up to the bar with a whiskey ginger and set of great songs cued up on the jukebox. But I also thought of the things I’d have time to do, like read for fun and work on fixing up the house. Andi and I even started writing a screenplay. Most of that fell by the wayside as we found solace in the endless stream of Hulu and Netflix. Maybe we’ll finish the screenplay during the next pandemic. (Jinks!)

So I never got around to reading War & Peace (but I did spend way too many hours dissecting the new Dylan album). However one wonderful thing that came out of the lockdown was the opportunity to work on my marriage. There was really no escape, so it was either that or build myself a shed in the backyard. With ample supplies from the thank-god-it-stayed-open liquor store, we stayed up late into the nights, talking about how to build a stronger connection that was as beneficial to her. Zoom therapy sessions helped me identify some useful tools and Andi gave me a reading list. The book You Might be a Narcissist If…: How to Identify Narcissism in Ourselves and Others and What We Can Do About It turned my whole head around within two pages. There were some rough moments when I thought Donald Trump wasn’t the only thing that was going to get canceled by COVID, but she encouraged me to do the work and not fall back on old lazy habits. Without the 9-5 and the call of the nightlife, I could focus on what was and is important.

Perhaps everyone found a silver lining during this mess. So many of us, fearing for older family members, brought people together through Zoom sessions. I talked to my mother on the phone this year more than I have in the last 5 years combined. Neighbors began looking out for each other, making masks and hot meals and checking on that crazy old man nobody ever talks to. There was an explosion of book clubs and cocktail parties on Google Meet

As I craved live music, online concerts from home became a lifeline. (Ben Gibbard and Kevn Kinney, thank you.) And all the free webinars plugged me into global community of peers. We spent plenty of time over the last year in the streets, but there was plenty of activism that was happening in front of laptops. Just the fact that† my first grader spent this past February digesting amazing stories for Black History Month gave me hope that consciousness raising can happen on a keyboard. I know I wasn’t the only one who used the down time to plug into the whole wide world via webcam.

No doubt around 2030 they will start throwing 2020 socially distanced parties, and people can go to the costume store and buy face masks, sweat pants and “Got My Fauci Ouchie!” T-shirts. We can not invite anti-Asian hate criminals and the phony militia men protesting public health mandates, as we dance alone to oldies by DaBaby and/or Lil Baby and pretend we don’t know what day it is. Me at this moment, I’m just trying to come up a name for the strange feeling that I’m a little sad this nightmare is ending. Just a little.

Love In The Time of Corona

March 15, 2020

IT WAS INEVITABLE: Society was due for a course correction. We’d settled into our accepted state of idiocracy, whining about our moron leaders while sipping our over-priced coffee drinks. Their delusions of nationalism were destined to bite all of us on the ass. Brexit, “America First,” Polish nationalism, and all the rest. Build a wall and crime will fall, they said. They were too stupid to know that germs don’t recognize man-made boundaries.

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In less than two weeks the fantasy of “national borders” was laid to waste by the creeping, then accelerating, coronavirus. We are the world, sneezing and coughing together, engaged in a collective fear that our inherent sociability is killing off our elders, one nursing home at a time. Our anti-science president thought he could employ his jingoism by placing his executive power in front of this “foreign virus” (his words). COVID-19 laughed at his hubris. It was already here, spreading like a kerosene fire.

So here we are, in lockdown, trying to “flatten the curve,” riding out the pandemic in our under-stocked bunkers, socially distancing ourselves from our neighbors. Thank the gods for Netflix and chilling. (We now know what will come after Gen Z, the Coronials. See ya in 9 months, babies!) What does this mean for our society, as food servers run out of grocery money and Trump thinks of another way to help his rich friends, again? (“Fed to pump in more than $1 trillion in dramatic ramping up of market intervention amid coronavirus meltdown”) It seems like once they closed down Disneyland, we were racing to a complete social collapse. At least my gym is still open, for now.

In times like this, people crave togetherness, something more than posting memes about empty toilet paper shelves at Costco. Older readers will remember how after 9/11 there was a strange sense of unity that fell over the country. We were all bonded by our grief and needed to be together, hugging strangers and lending handkerchiefs to wipe away others’ tears. Ah, those were the days. How can we accomplish this same cathartic social ritual with three feet between us at all times? I want to hug my elderly neighbors who are already “socially distanced,” but will that kill them?

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Our founding sociologist, Emile Durkheim, asked, over a hundred years ago, why we need religion. In a time of growing scientific explanation, it seemed like religion was less and less required to make sense of the world and yet people were still flocking to churches, synagogues, and mosques. What he found made a lot of sense. People’s need for religion didn’t have anything to do with needing “God,” but needing each other. We needed a sense of community, from the Amish to Zoroastrians. We needed to be in one place together, breaking bread and engaging in rituals that gave us a sense we were connecting the sacred mysteries and the profane reality.  Religion gave us the social cohesion needed grease the wheels of a functioning society. As a kid who grew up in the Bible Belt, you never asked where someone was on Sunday mornings. They were at church, with their friends.

In the twenty-first century, social media has given us much of that sense of community we used to find at our various worship services, but it’s still not the same. Even with online shopping, online dating, and online education, there is still an innate desire to be in a room together. Maybe it is tied to our tribal origins, the rule by consensus. Checking in with each other by taking stock of body languages. “Yeah, I get the feeling people don’t want to go the Chili’s after work.” We need to be reminded of the flesh and bones of us, that we are not a series of illuminated screens.

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So how will we get through this? My intellectual mind understands that limiting social contact will slow down the spread of the virus and put this thing in the dumpster with the swine flu, the bird flu, and various monkey-born illnesses. But my emotional mind wants to take my family out for dim sum to support our suffering Asian community and later grab a drink at my local bar in hopes a few shots of whiskey will immunize me. (Guilty of doing both this week.) Facebooking and ordering delivery just doesn’t cut it. Will my very human need to be in the world (and putting my money where my asymptomatic mouth is) extend this nightmare and maybe take out a few humans in the process? How can I be the needed citizen of the world and also stem the economic collapse in my little part of the world?

Durkheim believed that even horrible things can be functional for society. Maybe COVID-19 is functional as a great reset for the human race, to remind us that borders and nations are luxuries that quickly fade when we realize we’re all in this germ factory together. I’m wrapping my arms around the world. And then washing my hands.

My Old Face

January 18, 2020

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The life expectancy in the United States in 1920 was 58.8 years, so if you met someone who was sixty, they were “elderly” and living on borrowed time. In 2020, the American life expectancy is 78.9 and there are approximately 80,000 Americans who are over a hundred years old. I’m 55, so a hundred years ago I would have been ancient and now I’m wondering if I even qualify as “middle-aged.” Wilfrid Brambell, the actor who played Paul McCartney’s comical grandfather in The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was 52 at the time. Beatle Paul is now 77 and heads back on tour this spring, headlining the Glastonbury Festival on June 27.

So who’s old now? “Old.”

And when someone tells you to “act your age,” what does that even mean? What does it mean to a 17-year-old or a 55-year-old? I remember during the previous impeachment, there was a general feeling that 52-year-old Bill Clinton was not acting his age with Monica Lewinsky.  (Harvey Weinstein, 67, redefined the relationship between age and douchebaggery.) And if he were not the leader of the free world, the infantile antics of Donald Trump, 73, might be endearing. “He’s an old man, but he’s so childlike!”

As I write this with my reading glasses on, I can tell you there are a few clear markers of aging besides the fact that the smoothness of my skin seems to be evaporating. The aches and pains creep in and the extra pounds tend to hang on a bit longer, no matter how hard I hit the gym. And it’s just harder to hit the gym since there’s something awesome on TV tonight. I always hated when my elders would complain endlessly about the chronic pains of life so I’ll keep my mouth shut, but if I drive more than five miles, my right knee hurts!

There’s also the constant reminder of the passage of time. As a teacher, aging is particularly profound. The majority of my college students were born in the twenty-first century. I’ll say something like, “Remember how the nation reacted to 9/11?” and they’ll say, “OK, boomer, I was 3 days old.” And I’ll say, “I’m not a boomer, depending on how you chart birth rates. I’m a Generation X elder.” (My five-year-old daughter has taken to saying, “OK, boomer X.”) Regardless, I am constantly reminding my students what the world was like before the internet. Last week I was explaining what a “travel agent” was. “A travel asian?” one asked.

The value of all the mistakes I’ve made is that I can offer Generation Z endless pearls of wisdom, like “avoid credit card debt at all costs,” and “figure out ASAP that women are people,” and “don’t mix wine and whiskey,” and “take a literature class or something.” Then I can sit back and put all my hopes that the world doesn’t blow up on them. It is nice knowing a few things about how reality works even if I have no idea how I’ll be paying for the chronic health issues that are surely around the corner.

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The bottom line is that I don’t feel old. I still want to be at the front of the stage when a hot young band is blowing the doors off of some basement club. I was in the front when I was 17 seeing The Ramones and I was right up front seeing Velvet Q scream through a set in Seattle a few weeks ago. (Check them out, Grams.) I try not to wonder if the kids are thinking, “What’s that old guy doing here?” Because that’s what I would have thought back in the day. But, to be frank, the reality is that I find more comfort in spinning an old Yes album, than knowing the next big underground thing. (I’ve taken to consuming critics year-end lists to find music I should’ve already known about. Big Thief!)

The Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, got old. Boomers like Donald Trump and Dolly Parton, both born in 1946, are 73. The good news is that generation changed what it means to “get old.” If 73 is no longer “old,” 55 definitely is not. Ringo Starr will be on tour this summer for his 80th birthday, and Trump probably already has his sights on his post-indictment wife. (Sorry, Melania. Be best!) They made “thirty-something” cool in the eighties and they’ll probably make “eighty-something” cool in the 2030s.

So, lines on my face aside, there’s still a lot of life ahead. That includes mistakes, child-like moments of wonder, new paths, and nights pressed against the stage, remaining hair shaking to the beat.

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