Five Minutes Before the Recess Bell

Simmer down, class.

For over fourteen months, a trip to Trader Joe’s loomed large in our memories as The Last Normal Thing We Ever Did. We got up the morning of March 13, 2020, saw the media reports that Washington, D.C. was declaring a state of emergency, and before the sun came up, we’d contacted our book publicists, editor, and agent to let them know we were pulling the plug on our book tour. We were due to appear in D.C. that night and had dinner plans after with family members to celebrate the book release and Tom’s sister’s birthday. In retrospect, it was a surprisingly easy decision to make, considering our book had been released only ten days earlier and we were riding high on great sales reports and the kind of reviews we weren’t sure we’d ever get in our careers. But when we think about those early days of the pandemic, it’s not a feeling of disappointment that remains in the memories. Instead, we think about how scary everything sounded back then; how much the world outside our door suddenly became radioactive and deadly. “Think of it like this,” someone said on Twitter, back in the days when hand-washing videos were all the rage and no one was sure how much caution we were supposed to exercise, “The entire world outside is smeared with raw chicken and you have to make sure not to touch any of it.” In an atmosphere full of that much dread, worrying about the demise of our book tour felt indulgent and self-centered. We don’t remember being particularly scared for our final trip out into the world before our long hibernation, but we do remember thinking as we roamed the aisles of Trader Joe’s that morning, filling our cart with necessities and impulse buys in equal measure, “It’s going to be a while before we come back.”

In the following months, we adopted what might be considered by some an extreme level of social distancing. Given our childless, urban, carless, self-employed lifestyle, we weighed our options and realized that, for the good of our careers, financial situation, and most pressing of all at the time, the status of our newly released book, we needed to hunker down and stay there; no outside contact, no grocery shopping, no anything but work and self-preservation. Over that year-plus, we were never able to shake the feeling that other people thought we were going too far and we spent probably more time than we should have explaining our choice – which was, we still feel the need to point out, the choice to follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control, exactly as they were laid out. It was not an easy choice to maintain, but we knew that even something less dire than the worst-case scenario (for instance, we get sick but don’t need to be hospitalized), would result in weeks of lost revenue at a time when various forms of media were plummeting into the abyss because advertising dollars were drying up. It’s not a choice we ever questioned; not once during the whole year inside. It is a choice made from a place of privilege, however. We’d be naïve not to see and admit that. Being self-employed and childless meant we didn’t have to leave the house and, unlike most Americans, we could face economic uncertainty by coming up with a proactive plan for our business rather than, say, being stuck at home and hoping things get better soon so we can go back to our jobs before they evaporate.

If you’ve listened to our podcast at all over the past year, you may have heard us express some impatience with the people who insisted that a wave of great and permanent social change is going to come in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. It would be foolish to consider the idea that no change is going to happen after one of the most notable mass-death episodes of the last century, but the media in particular has a need to drive conversations and for most of the past year, “How have we changed?” has been an irresistible hook for countless hot takes and essays. Given the enormous percentage of Americans who actively fought making any changes to their lives in the face of the worst public health crisis they’d ever faced, given the footage of angry people storming state capitols and screaming about the tyranny of the masks they weren’t wearing, given the parties and raves, weddings and vacations that continued to take place even as thousands were dying every day, it always struck us as a fairly silly question. There were clearly large numbers of people who not only didn’t want change, but sometimes violently lashed out at the very idea of it. And for a good number of people who were stuck at home, doing as told, the dream that sustained them through that year-long winter was not a hope for change, but a return to some semblance of normalcy.

But it’s become clear to us that something has changed for a lot of people over the past year. The pandemic may not be the catalyst for tremendous shifts in society and culture, but it definitely exacerbated an already existing problem in America; the constant need to turn everything into a culture war battle, to reduce everything to a binary set of choices: pro or con, black or white, with us or against us. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we might even have to admit that a lot of us don’t even know what the fights are even about anymore because everything has become so tribal. A lot of us are looking at our neighbors, family members and fellow Americans with a less trusting, more critical gaze. A lot of us are noting just how many institutions failed us this past year and how often they did so; just how many neighbors demonstrated a very different sense of community than we thought was the common perception. Given that shift in perspective, it’s easy to believe that some sort of change is about to occur, good or bad. We didn’t reach our breaking point as a country and that’s something to be optimistic about, but it sure got bent to the point that it doesn’t feel like it’ll straighten out ever again.  

A particularly infuriating thing happening in the media in the last couple of weeks is a tendency to focus on the people who are still wearing masks outside several weeks after the CDC made an official statement that they’re not needed in uncrowded outdoor situations. The Atlantic published a piece by Emma Green this week that typifies the journalistic approach to this story: insisting that public mask-wearing is a form of virtue-signaling and casting it as a partisan issue driven by anxiety-ridden liberals who don’t “trust the science” after a year of wagging their fingers at others to do so. The very framing of this piece is a dead giveaway as to the reasons behind it. The media has a nearly pathological desire to maintain a wholly unrealistic and unnecessary form of balance to every discussion, as if everything in life can be reduced to a Democratic or Republican point of view. “Liberals,” by this way of thinking, spent most of the last year “shaming” people for not wearing masks, therefore, it is correct and coolly objective to now deride and criticize them for continuing to wear them after our institutions have declared them unnecessary. This is, to put it gently, rank bullshit. Elevating objectivity and balance to a virtue results in twisted arguments that recklessness and caution are equivalent opposites; that not protecting yourself and others in a health crisis is the same thing as over-protecting yourself when the crisis has passed. Forget that the crisis actually hasn’t passed or that we’re not even at fifty percent of the population being fully vaccinated. Forget variants or the immunocompromised. Those are all good reasons to argue that people who are still wearing masks don’t need to be shamed or criticized for it, but they tend to get lost in the weeds of the debate. The real response is that the individual choice to wear a mask in public is as much someone else’s business as any of the other items you choose to wear. Trying to shame people for public mask-wearing when it’s not needed is like trying to shame someone for wearing a coat on a hot day. It harms no one and the assumption that it’s based on fear or a refusal to trust the science is simplistic and condescending. Caution and recklessness are not equivalent.

This week, exactly 419 days since our last visit, we returned to Trader Joe’s. It was glorious. Two weeks post-second jab, we walked in without any fear or anxiety; thrilled at the prospect of being able to browse aisles without a shopping list. We knew it was going to feel momentous, but we weren’t prepared for the wave of emotion that crashed over us when we realized the simple lost pleasure of picking out our own produce while singing along to a 30-year-old Phil Collins song blasting overhead. Things like that. What was once so mundane as to be unnoticeable became so exhilarating that it brought tears to our eyes. A stranger pointed out where the cinnamon was when one of us told the other it looked like they didn’t have any and all three of us laughed for no other reason than because we were strangers connecting briefly. A revelation. A moment’s pause to express gratitude for something we’re very quickly going to return to taking for granted. It felt like that thing we’d all been denied for so long: a hug.

Culturally and socially, it’s five minutes before the recess bell for all of us. Like a classroom full of kids on a sunny day, we just want to get up and get out and it’s all we can focus on. Some of us sat still and waited patiently for the moment to come and some of us had trouble paying attention or staying in our seats, knowing that the schoolyard was just outside, waiting for us. But look, there are no report cards here. No one is being graded; not really. We are all impatient in the moment and impatient with each other and we can’t think of a more understandable, more human reaction to all of this. But one thing we’re not planning on doing is lingering too long on the personal choices of other people; not if they harm no one. We’re all coming out of one of the hardest periods in any of our lives  - everyone, all at once. We all have stories of the different hardships we faced and those stories reflect the choices or circumstances of our lives. Single apartment-dwellers had hardships that suburban parents probably can’t fathom and vice versa. Service workers and healthcare workers faced dehumanizing situations while countless other people saw the prospect of extreme poverty and endless unemployment yawning before them. Weddings got canceled, funerals went virtual, the needs of our children weren’t effectively met, bad marriages got worse and good marriages were tested in a way no ever planned for. What do you do when the world shuts down, when everything outside stops and you’re far away from human interaction? What do you become when your institutions fail you and your neighbors prove to be unreliable? We just found out the answer to a question none of us thought to ask before and we don’t think any of us have processed it effectively yet. We’d be doing all of ourselves immeasurable good if we resisted the impulse to judge people for how they conducted themselves through this and paid more attention to why they did what they did. And if you’re not inclined to be kind or forgiving, you know what? That’s fine too. We’re all so damn human and we should all be a little more accepting of that in ourselves and each other. Sorry to get so preachy on your asses, but it’s hard not to feel like our period of civil and personal unrest is not yet coming to an end and may still accelerate in the days ahead.  We have a chance during this liminal time to pull back on judging everyone else and listen to their stories. We’re not here to tell anyone what to do or how to think, but we’re going to try and hold onto that feeling of joy when someone we didn’t know took the time to say, “The cinnamon’s over here.”

I Was Told There Would Be Cat Pictures

Twirlers, meet Daisy. She looks like the kind of cat you see on Victorian greeting cards, sitting in a baby carriage wearing a bonnet. Daisy loves us and loathes her two cat siblings. She is the laziest animal we’ve ever encountered. If we say her name, she instantly rolls on her back and stretches her toes. She’s tiny and her front legs are only slightly longer than Tom’s thumbs. When she hops onto a piece of furniture, she lands with a chirp. She is our favorite type of cat, the kind where you always have to tell visitors “She’s not mad. That’s just her face.”

[Photo credit: Alex Block, Tom and Lorenzo]