Many years ago when I made the transition from adolescent / young adult male metabolism (the golden "No matter how much and how badly I eat, I never seem to gain weight!" years) to adult metabolism ("I gain weight when I look at food now") I found myself trying, for the first time in my life, to change my diet in a systematic way. And I had a realization that stuck with me: changing your habits isn't hard. Keeping them changed is.
People who struggle to quit smoking say this all the time. I can quit anytime I want! Check back in 2-3 days to see if I'm still "quit." Because that's the real challenge, to stay committed to a change in habits once they start to nag at you.
When Question Cathy and I bought and moved into our new home last Fall, one of the biggest changes for both of us was how little we interacted with our neighbors. In my previous case, I lived in a Chicago six-flat where every time one of my neighbors coughed or turned on the TV we all heard it. We saw each other every time we stepped outside. In QC's case, she lived in a Texas neighborhood of small houses where neighbors occasionally, I am not even kidding, yelled to each other through mutually open windows. They got each other's mail. They had keys to each other's houses. That kind of thing.
In our new place it was…well, if one thing about moving here disappointed us it's the feeling of distance and disinterest in the immediate neighborhood. No one said hi. No one was receptive to us reaching out, even on Facebook / Nextdoor etc. Six months in, I don't know any of their names. Several of them I have not even seen. It turns out it's an area populated mostly by older people who are beyond the point of caring about meeting new neighbors.
I still try to ride my bike every day, and Cathy tries to walk 3 miles every day. We're outside a lot. And for months after moving here we kept talking about how rarely we saw anyone else. Maybe one or two people walking the dog here or there. Maybe one guy passing the house on a bike every couple of days. It wasn't a big deal, but it was definitely weird. The whole area isn't like that, but our immediate surroundings definitely had that "Where is everybody?" feeling.
Then along came the 'Rona. This state was one of the first to mandate shelter-in-place. I believe that was about 7 weeks ago at this point; I can't be certain, as time no longer has any meaning.
Like so many people, we are fighting the feeling of being cooped up by going for long walks every day. And here's the thing: suddenly there are people everywhere. In late afternoon every day it's like everyone is propelled out their front door. Some of these people have even acknowledged our presence. A few of them even said hi. Some of us are achieving mutual recognition ("Hey it's Runs in Vests Guy! Look here comes Baby and Golden Retriever Couple!"). Everybody forces their kids to play outside every day. One day we found a street that was, I shit you not, covered over at least 1/4 mile with chalk decorations and games. One household writes new riddles and trivia questions on the sidewalk every day, rainouts excluded.
Of course the underlying motivation behind it is dark; everybody is stuck at home with nowhere to go. The options for indoor entertainment, especially where kids are concerned, were maxed out weeks ago. "Go play outside with chalk" is probably a desperate attempt by some stressed out parent to get 3 minutes of quiet. But here's the thing: it's still pretty great. When the end of stay-at-home and Shelter in Place happens – no doubt earlier than it should, since the stock market clearly is more important than anyone's life – I wonder how long it will take to go back to the way it was before. My guess is, people will try to keep up the new habits that have been forced upon them. More than a few will say "Hey I like taking walks every day, let's keep doing it!" and mean it. Good intentions or not, I wonder how many will still be going outside regularly in two months. Some people probably will. The rest will celebrate the "re-opening" by going back inside and never venturing outdoors again except to get in the car and go to Chipotle.
There is a part of me that never stops looking for silver linings, even if it's not the part that is oriented toward the world most regularly. When I feel overwhelmed by the amount of panic-inducing and ominous things happening around me, I withdraw a little. The world gets smaller. That's one reason I think, talk, and write about Trump so little these days – I see what is happening here, I feel like the country is committed to riding this one all the way to the bottom, and I'm trying to shift my focus to the things I can control in light of events I cannot.
There's nothing legitimately Good about any of what is happening in this country right now, and I have a feeling that things will continue to get worse before they get any better. Maybe I'm grasping at straws to find something about this reality that I like, but I find it low-key exciting to see people…well, I was going to finish that sentence with a list of activities but I just realized that "seeing people" is enough. It's nice just to see people. I certainly wasn't before this all started. To do that I had to get in my car and drive somewhere that other people had also driven to for the purpose of being around other humans.
Maybe the new habits will stick a little. I can't be the only one enjoying the change. But I understand how strong is the appeal of going back to Normal, even when it's pretty obvious that Normal was inferior in a lot of ways.