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.

Protecting Our Children from the Trump Virus

March 24, 2020

I’m not sure what day of the self-quarantine this is. I know it’s the second day of Oregon’s “shelter in place” order but the streets of Portland have been increasingly empty for over the last ten days, since the governor ordered all the schools closed a week before spring break, dropping thousands of kids in the laps of trying-not-to-panic parents. We don’t know what’s happening. I wonder if they do.

Our Cozy, at 5 and a half, is pretty smart. She rides around the car with me, secretly listening to NPR (I thought she was staring out the window, thinking about unicorns). Like most, I’ve been a little too addicted to the news about the advancing Trump virus. “Hey, Coze, where do you think this coronavirus came from?” I asked, trying to gage her comprehension of the global slowdown.

“It’s from sick bats in China,” she calmly said. I was expecting some kindergarten-level theory about it coming from flying monkeys hiding inside rain clouds. She’s probably been checking the infection rates on the Johns Hopkins website.

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But the reality of the impending sense of doom as the Trump virus shuts down the world she knows lurks like a monster in the closet. Our spring break tradition includes a trip to the super weird and wonderful Enchanted Forest amusement park, south of Salem. Closed due to the virus. We had planned a trip to Joesph, Oregon to hike around the eastern part of the state. Prohibited. Play dates, ice cream shops, jungle gyms, The Old Spaghetti Factory, all her favorite things are off limits for now and we don’t know when they won’t be. She doesn’t care about the stock market, but the fact that she can’t hug her friends is a red flag that things have changed drastically.

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This might be every parents secondary concern right now (the first being how to protect their children from contracting the Trump virus). How do we keep the kids from being infected with our generalized anxiety? Things are about to get even worse, but I don’t want my small child to know. She’s got washing her hands to “Happy Birthday” twice down pat, but does she realize that she’s not returning to her kindergarten class? The next time she goes to school she will be a first grader (God, please) and everything will be different. I keep thinking of that 1997 movie, Life is Beautiful, where Roberto Benigni and his young son are in a Nazi concentration camp and he convinces his son that they are actually in an exciting game to keep him from being completely traumatized. Dad is murdered by the Nazis in the end.

I’ll be honest, this Dad has been struggling. The Trump virus has upended the economic stability I started to find in 2019. It’s put my 70-something parents at risk. I’ve got an old friend in the ICU in an Atlanta hospital with a COVID-19 infection, and the dumbass Spring Breakers at the beach are not exactly flattening the curve. I feel like I’m inside a Joy Division album. Cozy is frustrated that Dad spends so much time watching the news or checking in on line. What to do, as we slide deeper into the social distance?

As usual, my bad ass wife snapped me out of the funk. She reminded me of all the positive things that are happening in this moment, most importantly all the wonderful family time that we’ve been gifted that will have a huge impact on our daughter. We’ve gotten to be homeschoolers, play dates, and creative time passers. (Andi has already given Cozy a haircut, two (henna) cat tattoos, and lots of weekday attention.) We’re planning some family art projects and Cozy and I are committed to learning how to play chess before this thing is over. We’re also catching up on Disney movies (Thank you, Disney+ for releasing Frozen 2 three months early!) And we’ve got a daily calisthenics routine we do on the sidewalk, to the delight out our neighbors.

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I’ve been running daily (now that the gym is closed) and reconnecting with the music of my youth. (You can run really hard to Van Halen). In the process, I’ve noticed neighbors and strangers seem more friendly, waving from their bubbles. The explosion of live music coming in from my social media platforms has put me in the room with some of my favorite performers, including Patti Smith, Michelle Malone, and Ben Gibbard (every day at 4 pm!). Something is happening. It’s like a government imposed artist retreat (as Patti called it) that’s also producing some much needed civility. The Trump virus is the great equalizer, but beautiful things may emerge from it. Andi and I have even started on a screenplay project!

She was quick to remind that when all this is over, people might slip back to their 9 to 5 grooves, complaining about how they don’t have any time to do the things that they really want to do. As a sociologist, I’m hoping this is a paradigm shift. That once we taste this new version of our lives, we won’t want to go back to the rut. We’ll create a new synthesis, transformed by the quarantine into a new global community.

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So this is what we must share out with our children, that out of crisis comes opportunity. Not to make a fast buck, like those looking for a corporate bailout from the Trump virus aid package. The opportunity to create new things, that connect us in new and beautiful ways. Cozy wants to write postcards! The social organism is adapting. We might look on this moment in history like how we look at how the Black Plague in 1340s Italy paved the way for the Renaissance, as Europeans embraced a lust for life instead of endlessly pondering the afterlife. Let the Trump virus unleash our lust for life and let our children know all the beautiful things that are coming.

Let us come out of this a new version of us, connected and complete. And let the optimism of our children be our guide.