Have you ever been at a dinner table conversation with someone who starts a story, gets interrupted, and can’t let it go? The group’s banter moves away, but the storyteller hangs in the rafters waiting for an opening. She tells the story even though it has lost its moment of punch. Awkward silence.
That’s how I feel about this blog. I’ve started and stopped it a hundred times. The topic is now old, re-hashed to a pulp, told in a million other ways, but for some reason, I can’t move on until I’ve purged my version. So, my advice to you, as you sit at my dinner table, is to pour enough wine to endure my boomerang story event, because here it goes.
Thank God for Tik Tok. You won’t find many Gen Xers who agree with me generally, but more specifically, how could we have survived the shutdown without the memes and stories we furiously forwarded to our friends and family? They engendered an ounce of levity during a freakishly “unprecedented time”, and they connected us with others effortlessly. That connection was really, really important. That connection is the premise of this blog.
Hugh Howser, a Nashville event planner, creative, and influencer, posted hilarious stories on Instagram during the quarantine. In his classic southern accent, he mimics COVID conversations with his friends: “It’s CRAZY, Hugh,” they said. “I mean it’s just CRAZY.” “How are your kids?” He asked. “Well, they’re CRAZY.” “What are you doing this weekend?” “I don’t KNOW. I mean, it’s all just CRAZY…” He goes on, and it’s crazy fun because it’s true. The shutdown was crazy, felt crazy, and drove a lot of us…bat shit crazy.
But not all of us. There were the “Thrivers,” those who COVID-THRIVED, who coined the term (that I Heisman reject): “our new normal,” which is to say they were okay with it. Everyone knows a thriver. The “new normal” was their raison d’etre. They put together old puzzles, organized closets, sewed masks from bra straps and old t-shirts, leaving them out for the mail carrier.
They built clever, little boxed gardens in their urban backyards, patented them and designed an app to sell them. They created new recipes using shishito peppers and posted them on Pinterest. They wrote their first e-books, took up bug photography, developed vegan dog food for their rescues. They loved having their children at home. Finally, they bought every molecule of yeast off the shelves at Kroger and made cookies, bread, and craft beer. I could have used that beer.
And then there were the decliners, those who COVID-DECLINED. We languished from a lack of human interaction, drank boxed wine, binge-watched Prison Break, and The Hand Maid’s Tale, gave away all of our work clothes, and forgot to brush our teeth. We felt giddy when a new meme popped into one of our 11 text groups. Some of us skulked around town in our cars looking for evidence of human life.
TJ Maxx finally reopened. “Excuse me, Miss…” I turned to see a masked woman holding two bright yellow pillows with sunflowers on them. Is she talking to me, I thought? Am I supposed to know her? “OH HI!” I shouted, struggling to find the right volume beneath my mask. She responded, “I noticed you were looking at yellow pillows just now and didn’t know if you saw these. I thought you might like them?” “Oh, THANK YOU! THOSE ARE REALLY PRETTY!” “Okay,” she said, backing away slowly, both pillows up in surrender, “I’ll put them down right here in case you want them.” Skittish, she looked to confirm no witnesses of the interaction, and she disappeared.
I stood in the empty middle of the pillow aisle in disbelief. Like a warm summer wave washing over me, I felt enormous relief, barely short of ecstasy. That woman, a “stranger,” just did a CIVILIAN SELL on me. Suddenly, I was not alone — no longer the sole survivor in a sea of COVID-thrivers.
Moments before, I civilian sold a dog bed to a young, first-dog couple on aisle three. They debated between the two dog beds left on the empty shelves, so I shouted, “I REALLY LIKE THE PLAID ONE. MY DOG HAS ONE JUST LIKE IT.” They nodded, gave me four thumbs-up, and put it in their cart. That was after I refrained from selling the ruffled blouse to the woman holding it up in front of the full-length mirror. I pushed back the persuasion floating inside my head: “That color is really good on you. Paired with a strand of pearls and some camel slacks…” STOP, Beth. Divert your eyes. She looks like a Thriver. Keep moving.
The TJ Maxx epiphany encouraged more bad behavior. I never told anyone because I’m pretty sure it was immoral, but the day it reopened, I went to the mall. Ashamed but liberated, I had myself a little masked shopping party in Forever 21, danced behind a rack of seasonally obsolete clothing, chatted up the cashier from my six feet away, and bought a couple of things twenty-one years too young for me.
I know I’m not alone. Governor Beshear chastised more than just me when he finger-wagged shame all over us each day at 5:00: “People…do not see people. Do not gather. No restaurants, no flea markets, no bars, no public parks, no sidewalks. The grocery store is for food, not friends…follow the golden rule, people.”
Call me a moral relativist, but I admit to developing a little loophole, a “Walk and Whine” every-once in a while (okay, once a week) with a small group of girlfriends. Outdoors only, no sharing anything other than funny stories, our general disdain for COVID, and of course politics.
If you wear a mask, you are a Liberal. If you travel out of state, you are a narcissist. If you quarantine just because — you are a weirdo. If you support Trump, you are a racist. If you support Biden, you are a socialist. You are either a thriver or a decliner. There’s nothing in between.
This isn’t shifting to politics. I have nothing new to offer there. What I do offer is a quandary. The shutdowns have led to a loss of human interaction and a yearning for re-connection, yet everywhere I turn, there is a visceral dichotomy in thought and speech. Equity, education, the election, masking, vaccinating, funerals and football…dressing or stuffing, potato, “potaughto”. Choose one side of each debate. You only get one.
Why is everything so palpably polar, and where can we find understanding?
Conventional wisdom says media is the culprit. The Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” spells it out — algorithms in social media like Facebook and search engines like Google and Amazon collect our interests and dictate what information we are fed. This manipulation deepens the divide and leads to heightened dogma. News outlets increase viewership and ad dollars by dramatizing events and overplaying soundbites. Finding a balanced representation of facts is getting harder all of the time. Currently, most that we see reinforces what we already think. I agree, but I think there’s more to it.
Even in the largest paddock on the farm, mares clump together in one corner and move in unison as they graze. Each member keeps open a watchful eye for predators, and even within the hierarchy — alphas make the rules — there is complicit trust.
“Herd Immunity” is a polarizing topic. Let the virus take its course, and eventually, the herd will develop natural immunity. The downside is the tragic attrition that happens as nature takes its course. There is little stomach for that attrition, so COVID restrictions are trying to protect the larger herd by separating the livestock into tiny paddocks until a vaccine is ready. It makes sense practically, yet it has consequences.
Tiny paddocks can become echo chambers. When the herd is reduced, we tend to operate similarly, think the same way, forward media the group will like, and follow the strongest voice. When we only have a few we can rely on and times are hard, we better not disagree whilst in a small paddock. There is nowhere to turn. We need to graze in a consistent pattern. In our isolation, there is little opportunity to engage in opposition discourse face to face with those outside our paddock, so eventually, we lose empathy for the other guys hanging out somewhere else on the farm munching on a different hybrid of grass.
The “Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt lays out similar concerns. “Children must be challenged and exposed to stressors — including different perspectives — in order to thrive.” I contend that our tiny paddocks of virtual meetings and like-minded memes are inhibiting understanding beyond our immediate personal likes and interests.
In protecting our larger herd, we are widening the gap and nurturing polarity. When we expand our literal connections whether it is through our work, church, the classroom, dinner or drinks out with friends of friends, or a civilian sell at TJ Maxx, we learn something new, hear different perspectives. We engage in a deeper dive whether conscious or not because we are there, in person, it is right in front of us without our seeking it.
My daughter, Eliza, graduated virtually from Emory in the spring and began her job in NYC remotely in July. In early August she said, “None of us like working, mom.” Saddened, I replied, “It’s because you aren’t in the workplace. Zoom is not a workplace. There’s no culture in remote. You just need to go.” And be challenged, I thought.
Just a year ago, at a restaurant in Florida, my dad and I got into a huge fight about politics. We do not see eye to eye, but because we were eye to eye (across the table from one another), we talked tough, and each of us may have learned something new. Virtually or over the phone, my dad and I would never engage in that discourse.
After the election, my son texted comments to me I didn’t anticipate. They did not fit within the tiny paddock where he lives at school. His words gave me hope because they showed he was thinking more broadly than the pattern of his group. It’s also likely he was venting his real feelings to me because he could not express them the way he wanted inside his school paddock.
The longer schools are closed, workplaces rely on remote meetings, travel restricted, and people are separated from even the smallest of interactions, the longer we will remain divided and polarized, culturally.
My husband’s colleague, our friend Harry, is an Irish National who lives in Japan and has built a very successful business there. He is fluent in English, Gaelic, Japanese, French, and American politics. Harry was in America for business last month. Dan and I cooked, Harry and I shared some wine, and over the kitchen island, we talked. We gave our perspective, and Harry offered his more global one. We agreed on some things and disagreed on others. We all learned new and potentially perspective-changing ideas. Important to note: Harry and I have never Zoomed, texted, nor talked over the phone. Harry insists on strong eye contact when we raise our wine glasses. I insist that the same eye contact is crucial to expanding our understanding of our fellow human beings.
Now back to my fantasy dinner party. My story is over, finally. The bottle of wine is empty and all of you at the dinner table are scratching your heads wondering, “where on earth did that come from?” Awkward silence…Quick, somebody tell a joke! (And don’t forget the wink face emoji).