The Old Normal Rises

There is the moment, at the point of a major crisis when it can no longer be denied, and must now be accepted as a new part of our everyday reality, that we tell the kids that everything has changed.

I didn’t have children at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but I can imagine that parents of young kids at the time had to find that right moment to explain what had happened with those planes, and why everyone was sad, scared, and angry. All of a sudden, everything was different. So much so that the kids needed to be sat down and told so in serious yet reassuring terms. I don’t know, of course, but I can guess.

I am a parent of young kids now, when the COVID-19 pandemic has really, truly changed everything. 9/11 probably didn’t fundamentally alter anything about kids’ lives back in the early 2000s, but the pandemic has utterly upended the lives of today’s kids, and it shows no signs of stopping any time soon. When schools shut down last spring as the virus broke loose, in a United States too stupid and delusional to even acknowledge it, the everything-has-changed conversation was inevitable.

My own kids had known that something called the coronavirus existed, and it sounded scary, but they had been reassured countless times that, while it was a serious problem for many people, it was not something that was likely to affect their lives or put them at any risk. I strongly suspected I might be wrong about this when I said it to them, but I didn’t know. Americans had largely avoided any upheavals due to the first SARS, West Nile Virus, H1N1, and Ebola, so it seemed like a safe bet that we’d be alright this time too. Ha.

Those several conversations with my kids over a period of weeks and months, about how they wouldn’t be going back to school for the rest of the year, about how there would be no summer camps or activities, how they couldn’t go and be with their friends, how we couldn’t bring them into the grocery store with us, how money was suddenly tighter and we wouldn’t be ordering pizza as often, and how they would be entering into a weird new quasi-school situation in the fall, they all bore the weight of that central premise: everything was different now.

Here’s the part where I admit to something uncomfortable. I genuinely regret all that my kids are losing and missing during this pandemic, and I grieve for the millions of souls lost or made to suffer from this disease. But I also felt (and, I suppose still feel) a certain twinge of satisfaction as I delivered the news of a New Normal to my kids. I think it’s because I know that the world desperately needs a new normal, a realignment of what we value and prioritize, a sober and clear-eyed look at the absurd fragility of our society. Maybe this pandemic would give our shallow, boorish culture the chance to reevaluate what really matters.

That’s not all. On a much more selfish level, I actually like some of the changes to interpersonal interaction that the virus has necessitated. I’m a severely introverted autistic with Asperger’s, I already work from home, I have little desire for travel, and I don’t have any meaningful non-familial connections that live anywhere near me. My pastimes of choice do not involve me leaving my home. The situation to which everyone else was suddenly struggling to adapt was already my comfort zone.

As I’ve written previously, I even have a soft spot for face masks, as they further anonymize me to a species that has consistently shown me that I am, at best, merely tolerated.

It’s more than that, though, because I have to hope that after such a major disruption of everyday life for an entire society, some reconsideration and recalibration will have to occur. There must be a new way of being that emerges from a disaster that is largely and plainly of our own making. If nothing else, perhaps we would experience something akin to the classic tech support cliché: we turn the whole thing off and then turn it back on again. The reboot clears away the cruft and bugs, giving us a clean slate and a fresh start.

But now, I don’t know.

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Freddie de Boer recently wrote about “romanticizing the post-apocalypse,”similarly hoping for something valuable to emerge from the chaos and death. “What I do want is some sign that we have reached a break, that events have forced us to face up to an old then and a new now, and that the tyranny of normal has been defeated at last.”

But like me, he is skeptical. “What this virus has taught me is the supreme durability of normal, the dogged survival of the mundane world, the near-impossibility of some new era in which all old expectations of civility and social norms will just extinguish or burn away…”

This is indeed what I see. While the pandemic has certainly brought out the best, most charitable, and most empathetic selves in many of us, I think for most Americans, it has simply been a pain in the ass that we need to be done with as soon as possible. Not, I should say, as soon as is best, or as soon as it’s safe, but just, like, now. This is obviously the mode of the utterly corrupt Trump administration, and we see it all the time in the outrage-inducing stories of churches flaunting social distancing rules or stupid teenagers mass-infecting each other at parties. But it’s more insidious than that, more subtle.

It’s in the insistence that we shove our kids back into classrooms rather than decide as a society that we should just pay people to stay home. It’s the delusions about how death statistics are being exaggerated (they’re not), how kids are magically resistant (they’re not), and the absurd tribalization of mask wearing.

It’s in the excuses we all keep making about who we imagine it’s safe to congregate with, because they’re family, close friends, or just people that we somehow simply know have been safe and surely aren’t carrying the virus (and, of course, neither are we!). I’m sure I’ve done it, and I bet you have too.

And yeah, it’s in the polls that show that despite the mass death, suffering, and economic calamity, we’re still a coin flip from reelecting (or reinstalling) the guy who’s primarily responsible for running us through this meat grinder.

We are simply determined not to give a shit.

Many of us have given many shits. Many of us have no more shits to give. Too many of us never did to begin with.

In a recent piece for OneZero, Douglas Rushkoff recalls the tech billionaires who have been constructing self-sustaining fortresses in remote locations to shield them against coming disasters such as climate change, global unrest, or pandemics.

“These solar-powered hilltop resorts, chains of defensible floating islands, and robotically tilled eco-farms were less last resorts than escape fantasies for billionaires who aren’t quite rich enough to build space programs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk,” he writes. “No, they weren’t scared for the Event; on some level, they were hoping for it.”

Well, if I had their resources, I don’t think I’d hope for disaster, but I can imagine having a silent wish in the back of my head that I’d get some excuse to go ahead and take refuge in my own personal — and perfectly furnished — Helm’s Deep.

Indeed, Rushkoff says those of us who enjoy the privileges of being able to work from home and not be gripped by the terror of imminent eviction or starvation are making a calculation: “How much are we allowed to use our wealth and our technologies to insulate ourselves and our families from the rest of the world?” he writes. “And, like a devil on our shoulder, our technology is telling us to go it alone.”

I have always found it easiest to go it alone, and I have long been grateful to the technologies of the Information Era that have given me the means to do so, ever reducing the frequency with which I am required to involuntarily interact with humans on any meaningfully personal basis. I have been trying to insulate myself for decades.

I suppose the difference is that I have not by any means lost my sense of moral responsibility to the world I share with these inconvenient humans. The fact that the current crisis resides in the form of a highly infectious pathogen, and that I live with and care for children and a severely immunocomprised partner, limits what I can do outside the home. But I try to play my part from here, with donations to those who need it and can best use it, advocacy for the right causes, and, minimal as it may be, sharing thoughts like this with you right now. It’s not enough, I know.

I do prefer the safety and distance of the domestic-digital life. I do wish, fervently, that this crisis will shake us out of our collective stupor and make us appreciate each other at a basic level. But I do not wish for the end of all things. I do not want to hide while the world burns. I want a new world to grow from this one, a better one inhabited by a people with better hearts. A new world where I don’t need to hide, but in which I retain the option to do so when the time comes.

Everything has changed, and yet it feels like nothing has. Let’s not have gone through this for nothing.

The Truth Behind My Face Mask

On the old He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon show, the small, hovering wizard called Orko—the comic-relief sidekick to the muscle-bound warriors—never revealed his face. Floating in a red robe, with no discernible limbs below his torso, his head was covered by a large, floppy, pointed hat, through which his pointed ears protruded. If he had a mouth or nose, it was wrapped in a cloth or scarf of some sort. All one could ever see of Orko’s face was his eyes and total blackness.

I remember distinctly an episode in which Orko, a member of the species known as Trollans, fell in love with another member of his own kind, and the audience learns that Trollans had a custom for expressing deep affection: they revealed to each other their uncovered faces. In private, they would take off their hats, unwrap their scarves, and give the greatest gift of intimacy of which they were capable, to allow their true face to be seen by the one they loved.

So Orko would loyally, courageously, and selflessly fight the most perilous evils alongside He-Man and his Eternian compatriots, but they would never be allowed to see their friend’s face. That was for Orko to save for a time, place, and person of his choosing.

I loved that.

My preferred day-to-day uniform, assuming the temperature suits it, consists of a T-shirt, jeans, hooded zip-up sweatshirt, and baseball hat.

I chose this basic getup because of its neutrality. These various garments cover me in solid, muted colors, in forms that suggest close to nothing about who I am, what I do for a living, what my interests are, or where I’m headed. One can’t tell if I’m off of work from some office job or if I dress like this all the time. One can’t tell if I support a local franchise, ascribe to a political ideology, have attained any particular level of education, enjoy any particular forms of entertainment, or earn any particular range of income (I could be broke and unemployed or just relaxing in my down time).

This developed, as so many choices do, from my experience in middle and high school, when standing out for any reason was to experience trauma. And I don’t mean standing out like a class clown or overtly quirky student. I mean being noticed at all, for any reason. If my hair was noticed, I was made fun of. If I was seen standing in some position or other, I was made fun of. If I was seen sitting in some other position, I was made fun of. If I was heard talking, expressing an opinion, or asking a question, I was made fun of. When taunted with questions meant to humiliate me, I was mocked for any answer I gave, and was equally mocked for staying silent.

If the brand of clothes I was wearing was recognized, I was made fun of for it. If the characters or public figures emblazoned on my T-shirts were recognized, I was made fun of for it. If I wore more expensive, “nicer” clothes, I was made fun of for it. If it was known that my clothes came from a store considered to be uncool, I was made fun of for it. If it was known I got my clothes from a store considered to be cool, that disconnect meant that I would be made fun of for it.

Like many other habits and precautions I built over that time, I adopted my neutral uniform to be as unnoticeable as possible. I didn’t like how my hair and my head looked, so I covered it with a hat. I didn’t like the shape of my body, so I curtained it with a hoodie.

Now in my 40s, I still prefer the relative anonymity that this basic uniform affords me. No longer quite as cowed by heartless teens (though, sadly, not immune to their eternal derision), this basic setup gives space for the kind of self-expression I feel comfortable with. Superman’s symbol adorns my hat. I have a veritable library of Avengers and Star Trek T-shirts. The hoodies, they have stayed plain, though I now have one in a rather bold red-rust color. The T-shirt/hoodie/hat combo is neutral enough to allow me to recede into the background while offering a basic canvas for those things that give me some joy. And even with this little extra information that these things broadcast to others, I remain largely physically obscured.

I also wear glasses to correct my vision, but I would probably choose to wear them anyway, as I have foresworn things like contact lenses and laser eye surgery. The frames of my spectacles add one extra half-layer to the overall veil. Take away the hat and hoodie, dress me in a shirt-and-tie, and you still won’t really see my true face, because my glasses will still be there.

And like the hoodie and the hat and the rest of it, the glasses help define the character. They are part of the mask I wear when I play the part of me to the rest of the world.

Speaking of masks, in the pandemic era we now have the growing normalization of the face mask. They’re an inconvenience, to be sure. They must not be touched once applied, and they must vigilantly be kept clean. They can make it slightly more difficult to breathe, and I assume they will be much more uncomfortable as the weather gets warmer. And of course, they fog up my glasses, and I have yet to master whatever arcane spells or incantations that prevent that from happening.

And yet, I still find myself — weirdly? perversely? — looking forward to donning one. I didn’t understand why, at first. But then I figured it out.

The face mask gives me one more layer of blessed obscurity. It prevents any scrutiny of my nose, mouth, or chin. They can’t see my crooked teeth, my overgrown stubble, my cheeks sagging with age. They can’t see me react to anything with a smile, smirk, or frown. All they can see are my eyes, which are already altered by glasses, and my ears.

And yes, when the temperature allows, I try to wear over-ear headphones, even when I have nothing playing in them.

Also, like T-shirts and hats, the mask offers a little space for a small bit of expression, should I choose to use it. My current mask was made lovingly by my auntie out of the same fabric she used to make my son’s first baby blanket. I love it.

The fact that face masks are also now part of a supremely stupid culture war, and for some serve as a kind of signal of political allegiance, is deeply disappointing to me. Beyond the obvious fact that the right-wing opposition to face masks and what they represent is astronomically asinine, selfish, portending of greater suffering, I’m irritated that their symbolism within this culture war means that they are no longer neutral.

I can feel it when I go on one of my rare jaunts to the supermarket. Those not wearing masks are clearly disdainful of those who are, and, at least as far as I’m concerned, the feeling is mutual.

The face mask is there, primarily, to protect others from me, in case I happen to be carrying the virus and don’t know it. Any protection it affords me is, as I understand it, minimal.

But I also valued the fact that while it helped stop me from unwittingly spreading any pathogens, it also stopped me from unwittingly telling anyone anything about who I am. It gave me one more step back from the eyes of the world. Now, the mask is like a flare, telling everyone in view that I am on one particular side of a conflict. And good lord do I hate that.

I very much hope our need for masks goes away as soon as possible. I also kind of wish that when the virus is gone, that the masks could stay. We are already so exposed. I’d prefer that my true face be something to be revealed only for a time, place, and person of my choosing.

Nothing to be done

The part of all of this that most fills me with despair is the fact that those with the power to do something simply won’t.

My experience of Twitter right now is one of being told over and over to be outraged about every offense committed by the president, Republicans, right-wing media, or their followers. And I am! Good lord, I am. Trump constantly lies, promotes self-serving misinformation, and foments civil war. His allies and defenders fall in line. The parade of fanatical ignoramuses react, predictably, with garish displays of jingoist hate. Their cells become food for viruses.

And so the Important People on social media do their duty and Point it Out.

Fine. What I’m not seeing, and what I desperately need, is for someone to do more than Point it Out, but to offer a solution. The dead horse I continue to beat comes in the form of quote-retweets in which I ask, “So what do we do?”

Trump encourages insurrection: “So what do we do?”

Trump refuses to give aid to states who don’t kiss his ass: “So what do we do?”

Trump ignored warnings about the pandemic, and now pretends he was always on top of it: “So what do we do?”

Maybe, in a previous era, reporting on the wrongdoings of a president or other public official would at least get the ball rolling on getting that leader to change course or be held accountable. But, surely, now it must be obvious that this is no longer the case! Everything we all got used to, the idea of “scandals,” exposés of corruption, and various career-ending “-gates,” none of it matters anymore. We can Point Out and Be Outraged over every appalling example of nogoodniks nogoodnicking until we run out of tears and our fingers can no longer tap out our replies and retweets, and none of it will change a thing.

Those who believe what the president says will believe him until their dying breath, even if it’s a breath gasped without the help of the ventilator they needed but couldn’t get because of the president they loved. If reporting, explaining, and shaming had any impact whatsoever, Trump would already be out of office, Pence would be under investigation, and far, far fewer people would be sick or dead.

So, I’m asking, what do we do?

The Senate could have done something. We know how that worked out.

Pence could do something. He and other members of the cabinet could agree among themselves that the president is a danger to the country, invoke the 25th Amendment, and remove him from power, even if only temporarily. But of course, they won’t.

Is there something more the news media could do? I honestly don’t know. Again, merely reporting the many crimes of the moment isn’t enough. Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper can fume into the camera over the president’s lies and the exponentially rising body count, but everyone who is watching already agrees that this is all an outrage.

Can voters do something? If they can, they have to wait until November, and then you have to assume that they will be able or allowed to vote. And because of how the Electoral College rigs the system in favor of the Candidate of the Fanatical Ignoramuses, it may not matter anyway.

Could well-intentioned billionaires and business titans do something? I don’t know! Governors? Celebrities? Anyone?

It’s hard for me to psychologically accept the idea that there’s nothing to be done, that we’re just hostage to the madness of an idiot cult leader, and that’s that.

I suppose what it comes down to, short of something even more destabilizing or dangerous, is that enough people will have to demand change in any way they can. But by “enough,” I don’t mean an motivated plurality or even 50 percent-plus-one. Overwhelming numbers of Americans will have tell those in power to fix this shit, but do it through some means that doesn’t require them to “take the the streets” like the Fanatical Ignoramuses protesting stay-at-home rules.

But there isn’t enough of us. This won’t happen.

So what do we do?