Not Reentry Ready

I’m not ready. Are you?

Apparently the pandemic is coming to a close. Only four episodes left before the 3-hour series finale with limited commercial interruptions sponsored by Progressive Insurance. Streaming live. Tweet about it with your friends.

Aside from the hours and weeks spent paralyzed by palpable dread and anxiety, that sure went by pretty fast! And here I am rotating my three pairs of soft pants (denim? Isn’t that the new Coldplay album?) and finally realizing my childhood dream of being able to sit on my hair. Is this all I have to show for myself? Split ends growing their own split ends and a slavish devotion to stretchy, breathable fabrics? It’s like, what have I been doing this entire time?  

All this talk of reopening malls and movie theatres and Chuck E. Cheeses has me in a bit of pit sweat because, honestly, I’m so behind. I haven’t started a podcast and my closets are full of the same junk they were in 2012. I haven’t used a funny or ironic or vaguely offensive Zoom background and now I fear I’ll never “accidently” click on something that turns me into a pig or chicken during my congressional hearing. I’m still buying my bread at the grocery store like it was 2018 and have barely made a dent in my toilet paper reserves. Slacker, thy name is me.

While we’re on the subject of abject failure: I didn’t write the next King Lear. I know. I KNOW! I had over a year of mostly uninterrupted time–it was practically a retreat, right? If that retreat was held in the scorched remains of a dystopian nightmare novel—to write a book or screenplay or opera (also set in the scorched remains of a dystopian nightmare novel), but have come up empty handed. I’m a flop, an embarrassment to creatives who are thinking, feeling humans and not cyborgs like William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton and, I’m guessing, everyone at Apple (even a pandemic can’t slow the rollout of tech junk we don’t actually need). While there’s still some time left, maybe I can master watercolors or learn Farsi—you know, knock a few easy things off the list so I at least have something to talk about at all the cocktail parties I’ll feel obligated to attend.

That reminds me of something else that I’m not ready for: peopling. How do we say words in the right order toward other humans while also reacting, wait, responding, wait rejoindering (new word?) to the mouth words coming out of their face spaces? Can I still put you on mute? Can I put me on mute? WHERE IS THE MUTE BUTTON ON THIS THING? Once I have it sorted out on how to do the peopling talk-talk again, that brings me to my next worry: What do I say? Of course we will both want to rehash in great and painstakingly finite detail the nuances of our experiences weathering PANDEMIC 2020 (Anderson Cooper and Tina Fey sit down with the entire cast following the series finale—don’t miss it! YouTube with your friends!). What’s left? I suppose there are old standbys of polite chit-chat like climate change, reproductive rights, and baseball (Boy, those Ravenclaws are going to have a tough season without Gandalf pitching. Am I right?). What I’m saying is I feel ill-equipped to downshift out of conversations related on how to get Icelandic citizenship to ones about the avocado shortage. A Pandemic Reentry Guide to Successful Reentry would be helpful. I’d write it, but I only have a few months or weeks left and this sci-fi screenplay about King Lear and Isaac Newton isn’t going to write itself.

It feels like a lot. The pressure to expel yourself back into the world. Not just to a movie or a reopened indoor restaurant, but to vacation in Bali, to commit to the pilgrimage to Mecca, to cash in the 80’s Heavy Metal Rock’n Cruise voucher and get back out there. Go big and do not go home, this is the message I’m receiving. Because we’ve suffered so much and gone without for so long, we deserve to let loose, spend all the money on non-essential items, and crack some ribs hugging people again. I want that, too. I’m just not all the way there yet. Aside from finally getting around to fixing the chimney and falling in love with the art of scrapbooking, I simply feel poorly prepared for reentry and all that comes with it. I don’t know if I want my memory wiped like a new SIM card. I guess I didn’t do much, but I’d like to hang on to what I learned.  

So maybe we can pump the breaks, just a hare, a scooch, really. Maybe there is a reentry-lite option that exists somewhere between MTV Spring Break Booze Beach House ’97 and going to a place that isn’t the grocery store or post office. And maybe it would be enough if we could still wear soft pants while sitting just a bit closer together and laugh more easily and still listen to the birds and talk about the million different nothings or maybe not talk at all and instead just be okay with being okay together.

365

In the last 365 days I have seen more wildlife than I have in all my years on the planet—eagles, cardinals, herons, swans, deer. Some of them incongruously skulking around the city.

In the last 365 days it seems pretty clear that humans are the incongruous ones.

In the last 365 days I felt the air grow sweeter, the silences open up to allow us to hear again, the natural world become softer and more like its wild self.

In the last 365 days I fell in love with my neighborhood, my local surroundings. I met Magnolia trees, with their pink, sugary blossoms, in the yards of houses just blocks away. I discovered footbridges and wooded trails and sunrise views I never knew existed and will not forget anytime soon.

In the last 365 days I have seen our best selves on display. People showing up for one another in big and small ways. People caring about strangers living on another continent. People remembering what it means to be human.

In the last 365 days I have seen our worst selves on display. People turning away from one another—angry, huddled behind a barricade of fear. People hurting and so hurting other people. People willfully blind, stubbornly prejudice to the simple fact that there is no you without me.

In the last 365 days I have seen way too much litter that wasn’t in play before-c’mon, now, folks. You can despair the end of days and pop that Poland Springs bottle in a receptacle. This is not that hard.

In the last 365 days I have cried more often than I’ve laughed. This math is no longer acceptable.

In the last 365 days I have accessed a deep well of anger I didn’t know I had.

In the last 365 days I wanted to unsee banners and signs and effigies in praise of a morally bankrupt human tragedy. Even more, I wanted to unfeel the disappointment with you, camped out over there on the wrong side of history. And maybe, what I really wanted was empathy to be easy, connection uncomplicated, understanding a zero risk endeavor.

In the last 365 days I witnessed the next evolution of the civil rights era arrive on a wave of white hot pain, rage, anger, and grief. I was challenged to reconcile with my privilege and position and role in the long drama of injustice. I am still rising to and falling short of that challenge.

In the last 365 days I realized I know very little about so very much.

In the last 365 days I surrendered to the cult of soft pants, and I am never looking back.

In the last 365 days I deeply regretted not investing in some video technology company called Zoom.

In the last 365 days I wondered how it was ever going to be okay.

In the last 365 days I realized there are still worse problems, bigger tragedies, and more terrible, toothy beasts under the bed than this shared health crisis. And that made me realize over and over again that perspective is more than just something you learn about in art class.  

In the last 365 days I saw how we repurposed the scraps of rituals and celebrations to make new forms of joy. One day from my upstairs window I watched as a line of cars slowly snaked their way in front of my neighbor’s house. Pink and white balloons trailed from open windows. Streamers fluttered from tailgates like tails on Chinese dragons. The street filled with the sounds of car horns. I saw the young woman, the fiancé of my neighbor’s son, come out on the porch. With one hand she cradled her baby bump. With the other she wiped away tears. One by one people got out of their cars, yelling, waving signs, blowing kisses as they gently laid cellophane wrapped baskets and gifts papered in cheerful patterns on the front lawn. The world may have stopped, but love did not.

In the last 365 days I realized we haven’t forgotten what’s important.

In the last 365 days I deeply appreciated the hard work and dedication of the toilet paper manufacturing industry.

In the last 365 days I wore the mask, gladly. Finally, no one was telling me to smile more.

In the last 365 days I worried over the very real possibility of losing American democracy.

In the last 365 days I understood in ways that I never have before what it takes to preserve and fight for this democracy. The short answer: it takes all of us.

In the last 365 days I did not join the cult of the sourdough starter.

In the last 365 days I drifted a little from some friends and a lot from others. I am working my way back.

In the last 365 days I have never felt so grateful or so indebted to the people who have made it their business to make us laugh and think and laugh some more—Sarah Cooper, Trevor Noah, Randy Rainbow, Caitlin Moran, Sarah Silverman, Alexandra Petri, the entire cast of Schitt’s Creek, the GIF-makers and meme-creators and Tik-Tokkers, the people gleefully sharing their Zoom filter fails. Funny people are right up there next to all the other heroes without capes.

In the last 365 days I let go of a lot: grudges big and small, habits that wasted my time, beliefs that didn’t serve, parts of myself that I used to think were essential, but were just taking up space (sort of like an emotional appendix), expectations, demands, and haircut appointments.

In the last 365 days I discovered that clearing clutter is not just reserved for closets.

In the last 365 days I stood in awe of the resilience and unrestrained joy of children.

In the last 365 days I multiplied my respect and reverence for teachers and child raising people into the triple digits. Coffee providers of the world, four words: Free. Java. For. Life.

In the last 365 days I slowed down. I went dark. I retreated. I unraveled some days and on others I glued the pieces back together. I stopped looking for answers and started finding acceptance. I sent my roots down, searching for nourishment, seeking something to hold onto in the free fall.

365 days later we are still falling.

365 days later we are still standing.

365 days later we are still here.  

No Thanks Normal

A few things have transpired since I took this photo in early May. The virus has wreaked havoc with our lives, bringing us and “normal” to our knees. Jobs don’t look and feel like they once did. Schools are operating wild west, frontier style. A little over a week ago, insurrectionists stormed our nation’s capital in an attempted coup stamped with presidential approval. Definitely not normal, at least not in modern America. Life has a Vegas meets Mardi Gras meets high school graduation rager kind of vibe to it where the unexpected, bizarre, and absurd hang out. I get the feeling that “normal” has always been a cover story, an alias, a shell corporation used as a front for the truth that reality is a hot mess.  

I traced the quote back to a man named Dave Hollis. Hollis is a former Disney executive turned writer and speaker. He had shared this notion in a Facebook post dated March 25. That seemed about right. In America, the nation-wide lock down went into effect on March 13. In less time than it takes for a Taylor Swift album to drop, we were itching to wish away our new weird and terrifying in exchange for our good, old fashioned “normal.” I get it.

I didn’t want to watch the death toll climb like a telethon tally from hell. I didn’t want to keep reading stories of artists struggling to pay the bills because theaters and clubs were closed and festivals were cancelled. I didn’t want to go to the grocery store like I had just rolled the dice in a game of Jumanji, racing to the paper goods aisle to get the last sacred package of toilet paper. I probably would have sold whatever remaining eggs I have left for the simple pleasure of hanging out in a café with a couple of friends complaining about our privileged problems for even an hour. But I know better. Familiar and comfortable are not the same as well, as healthy, or as just and humane.

My PhD research focused on representations of physical disability in American culture and the meanings we assign to all kinds of bodies, but especially those marked different or “abnormal.” The root of the word “normal” is Latin, first used in relation to geometry: “made according to a carpenter’s square,” something fashioned in perfect proportions. Ideal, perfection—these ideas came into play later on in the 1800s when “normal” meant conforming to a preferred, cultural, racial, physical, economical set of standards.

The Victorians made categorizing various types of people into an Olympic-level sport. They used physiognomy—a pseudoscience involving using the study of facial features to determine one’s character and personality—to create distinctions around people considered “normal” (read: morally superior) and those judged as abnormal (read: ethically deviant, bad, criminal, all together not desirable in any way shape or form). Three guess as to which race and class of people this benefited and one guess as to which it did not.

In grad school I wrote a lot of elegant theories about how so many elements—class, race, politics, media, science and medicine—coalesce to influence constantly shifting notions of physical disability. But I could have just as easily written one sentence over and over again like Jack Torrance from The Shining: Normal is a construct that can fuck right the fuck off. My advisor would have, as they say, “found this phrasing problematic.”

But it’s the truth.

If it wasn’t apparent in March or April or even August, it’s pretty obvious now that not only is “normal” a myth, it’s a dangerous idea. It’s designed to widen the gulf between one another, to stoke conflict and alienation. It seduces us into accepting things that are, in actuality, unacceptable and untenable. I’m not in a rush to get back to oppressing and victimizing people with a different color skin than mine. I’m not in a hurry to feed the machines of capitalism and welfare inequality. I’m not eager to sink deeper into the quicksand of social media, colonizing my brain a little more with every click and “like.” I’ll take my chances trying to make something meaningful out of this new now rather than trying to resurrect a needless “normal.”

Horrible, Thanks for Asking

“How are you? How are you doing,” I asked my friend. I asked because I cared and because this is what I know we’re supposed to do to start a conversation.

“Horrible, but thanks for asking,” she responded. There was a beat. We both burst out laughing, gutted by the truth masquerading as absurdity. It was a relief to hear her say what I had been silently yelling every time someone, with best intentions, asked. Being a human requires everything we have these days. At the very least, most of us are dented soup cans, at the worst, we are wrecked like a wild west saloon post-brawl. Yet at the same time, we’re still “us.” We’re still trying to earn a living and show up for our people and get the laundry put away and make life happen. Turns out that between weathering a global pandemic and white-knuckling it through the evaporation of American democracy, making life happen is a lot harder than Instagram would have you believe.

Maybe that’s why early on I made rom-coms a staple in my coping arsenal. I had already cycled through all seasons of The Great British Baking Show so many times that I was starting to gain sympathy weight from all that marvelous gluten and sugar. Rom-coms felt like the next best thing.

I’ve always been a fan of these movies—no matter how dippy or vapid. Depending on where you are in your life or your day, they can work as a kind of celluloid swaddling. As the pandemic has inched along, these flicks helped me check a lot of feel good boxes. They’re set in the past, so even 2002 feels idyllic, quaint. They’re breezily, blessedly formulaic. I can assure you that no brain cells were too taxed in the course of 90 minutes watching Hugh Grant smile shyly a lot. And most importantly, rom-coms exploit the best parts all the things that turn us into human puddles: sweet, quirky friendships; romantic gestures big and small and goofy; on-the-cute-side-of-precocious children; dogs performing charming dog antics; and Tom Hanks doing literally anything. The rom-com world is meant to be a perfect snow globe housing beautiful people finding love, success, happiness, and fresh starts galore. No one pays taxes or fights with their mother (unless it’s all mostly witty banter that ends with mom and daughter drinking wine in front of a cozy fire pit at their beach house). The rom-com is a refuge of unreality, and in these last few months it has been the sanctioned escape I’ve needed.

My friend’s quippy reply was so real and so true that it sounded like it could have been a line from a scene in a Nora Ephron movie. A journalist and cultural writer, Ephron poured her savvy humor and keen intelligence into screenplays like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle that would become the gold standard of the rom-com genre. If she were alive today, Nora Ephron would find a way to make our terrible awful feel less suffocating and doomy, and more like an extremely bad day that everyone is having at the same time, but with more cappuccino and cable knit sweaters.  

I revisited many of Ephron’s films during this stretch because I love them—her writing is witty and whip smart, her characters are relatable, and she recognized the gift that was Carrie Fisher, giving her all the best lines in When Harry Met Sally. I dipped back into Ephron’s catalog craving the kind of pop song love stories rom-coms rely on to transport me from the harsh and cruel reality. While romance does make an appearance, eventually—some very intense hand-holding in the last 3 minutes of Sleepless in Seattle, a very heady walk in the park in You’ve Got Mail, for Ephron romance was a Trojan horse. It was a handy vehicle to deliver more complicated ideas about the nature of relationships in general. I think she really wanted us to think about the messy imperfection of connection, of the beautiful labor that comes with building something true and honest. This takes more courage than the Eiffel Tower proposal. It requires more tenacity than getting him back after the epic screw up. It’s more important and much bigger than winning the argument about the wagon wheel coffee table.

It’s not about finding love; it’s about finding each other. Because we need one another.

I’ve wanted to disappear so badly over these seven months, but Ephron reminded me that we can’t reach each other if we aren’t willing to be seen. It’s not in scripted perfection that lives change and hearts call out to another, it’s in the thousands of seemingly throw-away moments where it’s just our regular selves showing up, breaking through, willing to admit, yeah, I’m horrible too, thanks for asking.

JK, Right?

FADE IN

EXT. TRANSFER STATION (AKA. THE LOCAL DUMP), RURAL TOWN—DAY

A WOMAN in her “thirty-tens,” but often mistaken for younger (not-so-humble-brag owned) drives into the transfer station. She makes her way around the short loop to pull up next to the dumpsters. Two men work at the station: SAM and MEL. They both are of average build and height and appear to be in their late-50s or early-60s. SAM is stoic, polite. MEL is a talker. He is also a local; he knows everyone and, of course, everyone knows MEL. MEL is happiest with an elbow draped on the side of your pick-up truck chit-chatting, jokey-joking, hee-hawing it up with you. That MEL! What a character (is what he assumes those laughing, smiling people say).

An SUV-type vehicle is ahead of the WOMAN, idling in front of the dumpster designated for all household trash. The WOMAN parks next to the dumpster for recycling. She shuts off her car and begins hauling out flattened pieces of cardboard boxes. Because everything from pajama pants to avocados magically arrives on her doorstop these days, there are many cardboard sleeves to fling into the receptacle. The back hatch of the SUV is raised. The DRIVER and MEL are looking at some kind of small tractor or tiller or, possibly, one of those terrifyingly cute “robots” made in the dubious labs of Boston Dynamics. He and MEL are engrossed in conversation. The WOMAN is from the big city where holding up the works to chat as if you were at a neighborhood cook-out is a punishable offense. She is stubbornly resigned to the rules of small town living. This could be a while. The WOMAN retrieves a bag of trash and carefully circumvents the two men to toss it into the dumpster. It’s only then that MEL and the DRIVER seem aware of someone else in line.

The truck starts and the DRIVER pulls away. The WOMAN grabs and tosses, grabs and tosses, mostly her recyclables, saving the heaviest bags for last. At some point she hears MEL, his commentary unclasped from the conversation with the DRIVER to find new purchase with whomever is closest. In this case, SAM. The WOMAN picks up the volume of his voice, turned her way, registers the sound of his work boots mincing the gritty, sandy ground. To be a woman is to develop the auditory powers of a bat. The WOMAN hears:

MEL: (laughing)…don’t mind, but it’s those mean, little women who come around that you have to worry about!

The WOMAN rakes a bag of cans and paper toward her. She hopes she’s wrong about what is surely coming next, knowing that’s about as likely as a Brittney Spears Oscar win.

MEL: Are you one of those mean, little women?

The voice is at her shoulder. Without stopping her gathering, without looking in his direction, she responds:

WOMAN: I’m not a little woman at all.

There is a breath of hesitation. A precious few seconds for the prefrontal cortex to make a series of calculations it has made millions of times.

MEL: Young girl?

The mask hides the teasing leer on his face, but it cannot chase it from the tone of his voice. There is another beat of hesitation. It is less than a few seconds for the prefrontal cortex to make a series of calculations it is making for the first time—surprising its own ancient intelligence.

WOMAN: No.

The finality of her sentence is palpable. There is no lift to her tone, no suggestion that she, like he, might be “just joking.” Because in that instant the WOMAN became clear on something that she hadn’t been before: when someone abuses humor to Trojan horse their douchey behavior, you do not have to play along. You do not have to return their joshing to diffuse the situation or prove you are “cool” or tactfully excuse them from having to take responsibility for their stuff. No. Way. Oh! Says prefrontal cortex. Noted, like, 4-EVA.

The energy washes out from the interaction the way sidewalk chalk runs in the rain. MEL manages a weak chuckle. The WOMAN remains silent. SAM takes what turns out to be the most cumbersome bag of trash out from the car. MEL reaches for whatever is left. The WOMAN thanks both men politely, gets back in her car, and drives out.

The WOMAN takes her mask off and drops it onto the passenger side floor. She turns onto the main road, grinning at her own reflection in the rear view mirror.

END SCENE