PATTERNS

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.

14 thoughts on “PATTERNS”

  • It's funny that, contra the preppers' view of disasters as time to start lightin' up the looting hordes, what really happens is that…people help each other. The personal experience of quiet heroism and simple generosity has to be leaving a mark.

  • Get a dog, Ed.

    I barely knew most of my neighbors, a couple of YEARS after buying the house. Then, Mr. Buddy the Wonderdog moved in. One of the few people I talked to had him for a roommate (she rescued him when he was about 5. He lived with her for 2-1/2 years and then got diagnosed with liver cancer and died 3 weeks later.

    Buddy had to go out at least 3 times a day and I met everybody in my neighborhood in pretty short order. Some of the people I met had dogs, some didn't, but they almost all liked Buddy and accepted me.

    He's been gone a year and I can only say that the neighbors that I talk to now are about enough.,

    Living alone and not having a lot of money–this is not my "new" normal. I'm used to it.

    If you can't get a dog, don't be tempted to have children, instead. They're way more work and where the one will be selfish and hard to get along with you WILL have to pay their college bills!

  • Part of it is, I think, that people have time for human interaction when it happens (aside from being simply starved for it). I called a customer today to tell her a special order had come in, and we talked for almost 20 minutes about random stuff, swapping anecdotes, just chatting. In the Before Times, I wouldn't have wanted to tie up the store phone for that long, and since it was during our usual open hours, there might have been in-person customers needing help. And of course she might have different obligations. Now if I want to stand at the door and shout-converse with the owner of the art gallery down the way for three full hours, who's going to stop me? Who's going to care?

  • Not to be callous to those stuck sheltering with assholes or those who, you know, died from this but could there be a crisis that was more of what Americans needed. You know that job you’ve given your life for and you think is so important ? Well you’re going to do it from home or maybe not at all. You’re also going to rely on people you think should make less than minimum wage. And good luck getting your kids to do any of the school work their supposed to do, those damn teachers you think have it so easy must be god damned miracle workers. And those kids and family you say is so important but you haven’t had a real conversation with in years, you get to spend all day every day with them, for ever. So here’s hoping we don’t get back to normal because that was a pretty shitty place to begin with.

  • I think it has a lot to do with time. I'm saving about 45 minutes a day by working from home.

    (I'm saying this because the reason people will retreat to their houses isn't necessarily always going to be "People are shitheads" although obviously that's part of the explanation for everything.)

  • @ waspuppet:

    If we weren't a spectacularly short-sighted species a lot of us wouldn't be here.

    Some people think I'd beel bad if I was never born.

    I think that they have trouble with understanding reality and how it works.

  • I actually honest to god quit smoking for three days a week or two ago ("what is time really, anyway?") and uh, it was BAD. Cigarettes may be deadly, but they're a hell of a lot cheaper than Xanax. Anyway, if I'm going to die from a deadly respiratory illness, might as well have a little agency, right?

  • @ geoff:

    I finally quit smoking cigarettes after third try.

    That was 38 years ago. I was very, very lucky to not have my neural synapses screaming for nicotine when I quit. I had stopped getting drunk two days earlier–also 38 years ago and not even an inkling of the dt's or other withdrawal.

    If only I could do the same with sugar.

  • When we were much younger, my wife and I moved from Los Angeles in an apartment where I knew 90% of my neighbors and interacted (played chess, drank, watched movies/tv/sports) with them daily to a sprawling apartment complex in Newport Coast, Orange County. We lived there for a year and never met a single neighbor. I would hear a door close and rush out to see if there was anyone there or if it was some kind of Twilight Zone episode. It was so bad we had to move back to LA.

  • joel hanes says:

    I have a feeling that things will continue to get worse before they get any better

    Hurricane season 2020 gonna be lit.

  • I had a seriously philosophical debate as to whether quarantine is better a) single b) with a partner or c) partner with kids.

    I think C goes out the window pretty quickly. Love my nephew, but I love him more because I get to see him in controlled doses.

    B? Sure, sex. But man, one bad argument or stomach flu and that's out the window too.

    A? Well, being A myself I'm gonna say it's probably for the best.

    YMMV, as always.

  • Jack the Cold Warrior says:

    Excellent essay… Hope the new habits stick with at least some of your neighbors.

    Hope even more we get through Covid19, hurricane season, someone stops Trump from nuking Iran so he can get reelected, and when he loses he starts a coup with his bullies and there's blood in the streets…and it fails. He is jailed for treason the rest of his life.

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