Jeff Smith, U.S. Navy (Ret.) teaches mathematics at Encinal High School.
Stick a Fork in the Road and Turn it
Stick a Fork in the Road and Turn it
Not to catapult an unsolicited opinion onto an unsuspecting public but, let it suffice to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has situated us at a fork — not a pothole — in the road. As Yogi Berra tried to warn us, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
We could be asking ourselves: “Do we want to get back to normal or do we want to germinate a new normal?” Depending on your response, our current crisis could be an opportunity — if you will pardon the cliché — for a paradigm shift. We could hunker down and sentimentally lament the passing of the good old days.
When we first transitioned from calling COVID-19 an epidemic and ratchetted-up its order of magnitude to a pandemic, we zoomed in on our mortal nature: our inescapable frailty. An epidemic is something somebody somewhere sometimes has some risk of contracting. A pandemic is something in which all of us stand a substantial chance of contagion.
Given the escalation in word usage, our rational fears ran neck and neck with our irrational fears. At the psychological level, to make matters vibrantly worse, “shelter in place” exiled us East of Eden, yanking us out of our anesthetizing routines, our numbing habit patterns and quotidian dervish dance rituals. Given the lush life before COVID-19 were we happy campers?
As Alexander Pushkin points out, “Habit is surrogate for happiness,” and as Socrates once remarked, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
How did you respond?
Responses to the pandemic discomfiture were idiosyncratic yet somehow standardized. The hoarding instinct, the perfect palliative if not an antidote, for chaos, insecurity and uncertainty kicked into full afterburner. Mistakenly, or unconsciously, people blithely thought, “If I have a year’s supply of paper products and pasta, that pretty much guarantees I’ll be around long enough to use it all up.”
I entertain a similar fantasy whenever I reduce the entropy of the cosmos by organizing my chest-of-drawers: “How could God or fate possibly strike me dead now that I have restored this much order to the universe by neatly arranging my socks and skivvies?”
Another measurable COVID-19 response was a 40 to 50 percent increase in alcohol consumption. In an abundance of caution, I opted for the high end of 50 percent; I ordered an additional recycling bin to catch the ancillary empties. Try to remember what your reaction was when your COVID-10 anxiety and anguish were peaking: asymptotically approaching panic.
An ideal response to the virus was to take advantage of the pause and to ask ourselves what matters to us: what is important in life? What is fundamental to living? Answers to these questions reaffirm the planks that humanists build their philosophy on: the intrinsic goodness of humanity.
Faced with uncertainty from an existential threat, people realized what mattered most, what they valued most and what was the greatest mood elevator and tranquilizer. The re-uptake inhibitor at the tip of the comfort pyramid was people: family, old friends, new friends, even strangers.
We picked up our cell phones, not to text, but to refresh neural pathways and to sprout new dendrites, to connect ourselves to who we were, who we are, and who we might use our remaining time to become. Before the pandemic I called my children once or twice per … no I am not going to tell you. I do not know what was wrong with the pre-pandemic me. Now, I call my children, who are not actually children — they are all in their 30s — once a day; remarkably they answer!
Although I retired from the Navy in 1994, I called my old — and they are old — Navy buddies; we talk nostalgically about then, realistically about now and hopefully about what’s next. I even connected with my fraternity brothers at Theta Chi in Buffalo, N.Y., circa 1971.
Being confronted with one’s mortality is sobering. It invites, if not demands, introspection. It’s one thing to catch a glimpse of your un-photoshopped self while flossing, it’s another thing to do the math and figure out exactly how much longer you can expect to continue riding the rodeo.
Reevaluating capitalist values
One thing worth reevaluating is our producer-consumer-collector, expanding empire fetish. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, then Pres. George W. Bush urged Americans to get back to normal and not to be afraid to “go shopping for their families.”
I wonder, “Can we have a healthy economy without a consumer society?” I ask, “Do we have to have a federal deficit of $1 trillion in order to avoid a recession?” Another question is, “Do we have to spend 110 percent of our disposable income to enjoy the dolce vita?”
Walking around Alameda one notices things; as Yogi Berra tried to warn us: “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Everywhere there is a profusion of gorgeous flowers bidding for our attention; this is life affirming; on a sunny day, the beckoning blossoms virtually shout at you. Thank you, homeowners of Alameda, for making this such a beautiful, elevating place to live.
As the cost of affordable housing in Alameda claws its way past $600 per square foot, we explore creative solutions as to where to stack our junk, false idols and talismans … I mean treasures.
The lost island civilization of Alameda
I worry that hundreds of years from now, an underwater archeological team is going to explore the Sunken City of Alameda. What if they swim up to the surface with a complete collection of Oakland A’s Bobble Heads or Snow Globes or the Franklin Mint’s Miniature Beer Mugs of the World?
What will historians think of us as a civilization? Will they equate us with the Golden Age of Greece? The Italian Renaissance? Or the Slump of Schlocktown?
On the other hand, Alameda recently made the Atlantic Monthly for its “Porch Music;” an Alameda website boasts nearly a dozen addresses for Porch Music. This is a new tradition, which should be retained as part of our social fabric long after the plague lifts; it’s art, self-expression, creativity, community: exactly what people were designed for.
Because of the claustrophobia brought on by “shelter in place,” people hike around Alameda stretching their glutes and quads: they promenade. As they approach others, they politely signal their intentions for complying with social distancing. As they pass one another, we assume they are smiling beneath their masks or bandanas. They swap a friendly acknowledgement or an amenity or a well-meaning salutation; we need to reinforce and preserve this behavior.
“T’shuvah,” repentance, a chance, as the Man says in Deuteronomy: this could be our Season of T’shuvah a chance to get back to what is real, what matters: family, friends, the stranger, community, creativity, the environment, expressions of joy and a connected, socially integrated joie de vivre.