Envisioning Our Renaissance at Home: Life After the Pandemic

March 8, 2021

A year ago, we were in a panic. I remember walking into the grocery store on February 29th, and seeing every roll of toilet paper gone. (I bought a 6-pack of Corona and went home.) Now, after over half a million deaths in America, the light is at the end of the tunnel. Things are beginning to open, like a late-winter purple crocus. Thirty million Americans have already been vaccinated. (I’m scheduled for my Pfizer vaccine on Saturday!) Schools are making plans to reopen and restaurants are starting to seat diners. The insanity of March 2020 is being answered by the hopefulness of March 2021. There are still incredibly high rates of infection (Don’t you dare take off that mask!), but the future looks bright.

I’ve done several trainings on racial and ethnic inequities related to the COVID-19 infection and death rates (and now immunization access) over the past year. I always try to balance all the doom and gloom with a “silver lining” ending about the power of resistance and resilience. Looking back at history, the explosion of cultural creation that began in the Renaissance of the 15th century was a life-affirming response to the “black death” of the 14th century’s bubonic plague pandemic. The “Roaring Twenties” were a celebratory pivot from World War 1 and the influenza pandemic that wiped out nearly 100 million people a century ago. Maybe this pandemic will give us a new Renaissance, I would offer my bummed-out audiences.

So let me throw an idea into our grand re-opening.

We’ve survived this year-long pandemic in various ways. Mainly retreating from bars, clubs, restaurants, block parties, and family celebrations, as we socially distanced from each other. We’ve retreated into our phones (Tik-Tok as therapy?) and endless binges on the small screen. (I’ve seen every iteration of 90 Day Fiancé and am now bingeing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.) We’ve become anti-social. The majority of my college students mute their videos during our Zoom classes. I’m not sure if they are human beings or Russian bots. Can I get a human interaction??? So the response to this year of isolation is to become SUPER SOCIAL.

People of America, let me reintroduce the once popular pastime known as home entertainment.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my parents were always going to parties. My brother and I were either stuck with a babysitter, or peaking under the bedroom door wondering who all the laughing people in our house were. My mom hosted bridge parties, my dad hosted poker parties. My parents belonged to a gourmet dinner club and, when it was their turn, cooked and decorated the house for disco-era foodies. I grew up thinking every weekend was a house party. Complete with a wet bar. To this day when I hear Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass my mouth waters for leftover hors d’oeuvres.

What did the swinging parents of the Seventies have that we don’t?

Well, for starters, they didn’t have social media sucking their eyeballs in an endless doom scroll. They also had better wages that allowed them to keep the wet bar stocked. But post-pandemic, we have a greater desire to be in a living room together, reading faces sans masks. (Did Ms. McGillicuddy just lick her lips while she handed me that Gin Rickey?) If there ever was a generation that was desperate to sit on a sectional couch and complain about kids and parents and government, it’s Generation Zoom.

So let’s bring it all back. Card games, Monopoly, charades, dinner parties, album listening sessions, jigsaw puzzles, Twister, fancy cocktails, inappropriate party games. All of it. Except the misogyny. We can leave that in the Seventies. (No key parties!) If the women want to smoke cigars in the backyard and complain about how their men are crappy at laundry while the men clean up the spilled Chex Mix, let ‘em. The kids can be locked in the bedrooms, watching the Wizard of Oz (or Ozark), while the parents crack open another bottle of pinot in the kitchen.

We’ll be back in the clubs and bars, seeing bands and getting Ubers home soon enough. But let’s not go back to normal. Normal sucked, too, if you remember. I don’t want 2019. Nobody wants 2019. If it’s Saturday evening, either you are going to somebody’s home for dinner, or you’re having somebody over for dinner. And then maybe an apéritif (Look up that word, loser) and a nice game of Parcheesi or even Cards Against Humanity. We need this! We need to sit across from each other, at a card table, and reconnect.

Great things can come from this. During the Enlightenment, salons became all the rage in Paris. People turned their living spaces into community meeting places, called salons. In apartments and front rooms, people would gather to discuss art, politics, and the meaning of existence in a post-Dark Ages Europe. German sociologist Georg Simmel invented the field of small group dynamics by observing interactions of salon participants. The next generation of grand ideas is not going to come from hunched-over trolls, sliding though endless posts on Instagram. It’s going to come from the collision of ideas that occur during a game of rummy, fueled by Whiskey Sours.

During the quarantine, we decided to take on a kitchen remodel in our 1909 Portland Craftsman home (with a very out-of-date 1960s kitchen). We want to turn our home into a welcoming place where people can bring a bottle of wine and stay as late as they want. No TV, we’re adding another couch to the living room for relaxed conversations. I’m going to re-learn how to play poker. (Seventh grade was a long time ago.) We want to start a circle of friends who feel comfortable inviting each over to their homes, even if it’s for a cocktail before heading out to the movies.  (Remember going to the movies? And friends?) Enough take out. Let’s cook in! And invite the neighbors! Home entertaining could be the great salve we’ve secretly craved. You’ve spent a year cleaning your place, for godssake.

Our culture is so divided right now. Let’s get to know each other again. Let our homes become safe spaces to argue and discuss and figure out what our Roaring Twenties should look like. I want you to dress for the occasion. I’ll bring the deviled eggs. Cheers!

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.