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New times, new thinking: What to say to COVID defiers | John MacMillan

Monday, April 06, 2020 @ 8:40 AM | By John MacMillan

John MacMillan %>
John MacMillan
As I shut the door, my wife asked me where I had gone. She and I had just returned from our daily self-isolated exercise walk, on a day that would picture in the dictionary under “spring perfection”; she knew that I had fulfilled my daily exercise, so why had I gone back outside? I said I’d spied a group of young guys shooting hoops at our nearby park’s basketball court and had headed out to chide them about social distancing. “I said ‘Boys, the courts are closed … didn’t you see the police tape on the rims?’ And they said they’d ripped it down. It got in the way of their shots. So I said, ‘how you gonna’ feel when you give your grandmother COVID-19? Get home now! This is serious!”

I’m not that guy, the “Grandpa Simpson” who shakes his fist at clouds and yells at the neighbourhood kids. Normally I’d just marvel at their athleticism, envy their reflexes and finish my crossword.

But none of us are the people we were before this started. The pandemic hasn’t just changed our economy, jobs and public health awareness — it’s also made us act differently.

You might have seen this: that stable, preternaturally tough relative you thought you knew, now stricken with dystopian fear. Your pal, the healthiest woman on the planet, who would normally regard a broken leg like a broken nail, now hides indoors: a neo-hypochondriac who wipes her mail with bleach. I heard on the radio about a rash of kitchen fires from people microwaving their banknotes — talk about burning through money!

But you might have also seen that that sensible guy, who usually has more feet-on-the-floor than an earnest centipede, has devolved into a business-as-usual viral scofflaw. He’s one of many I’ve talked to over the past weeks who feel a duty to “fight the fear by just getting out there and doing stuff,” viewing social distancing with the blithe indifference of a soldier in a phony war. I’ve seen that defiance in myself: I’m that guy with chronic health problems who is a veritable porch lightbulb to the COVID-19 bug, but, while I wash my hands like a fastidious otter, I am most certainly not hosing down my cereal box. And my face and hands have never been more in love.

Rather than simply wondering why everyone’s lid no longer seems to fit their jar, maybe we need to see the people around us adjusting to the pressures of a time not seen in generations.

Working at home is not the cake-walk you thought it was: it’s lonely, alienating and desperately tough to focus with the kids around, yet productivity is still demanded — despite the circumstances (or maybe because of them). Some people who say they’ve never been busier — and no, they don’t work for Zoom — miss connecting with their “work-family,” even though their colleagues’ pixilated visages are rarely out of sight. That salesclerk who once greeted you merrily, is now managing both their till and existential dread, regardless of the new spit-shield the boss installed. A transit worker friend related his daily, anxious “voyage of the damned,” piloting a vehicle filled with homeless people: all with nowhere to go, no one to interact with and nobody to spare them some change or a cig. There are a lot of people living their lives while the figurative sand shifts beneath their feet.

We cannot expect everyone to be on their A game, when the rules have changed and the playing field has become a labyrinth. Maybe people are experiencing more than new public health strictures, more than the novel uncertainty of the novel-coronavirus: rather, they — we — are living through something like the historical moment that the philosopher, Louis Althusser, dubbed an “epistemological break” — a new way of understanding, posing questions and gathering knowledge. This isn’t the first time you’ve read this, but maybe this new reality will become the new normal, and as it does we will all become a tad more emotionally brittle and a ’li’l bit personality-challenged.

If this is the case — that what was once, is now what’s past; or (paraphrasing that other famous philosopher, Paul Simon) that one person’s ceiling has become another person’s floor — we need more than ever to cut some slack to our idiosyncratic friends and relatives, to the clerks and colleagues, to the workers and the woebegone.

It might mean taking a breath before taking umbrage, even if that breath is through a mask, darkly. It might mean imagining yourself sitting on the far side of another’s swaying bridge, before you rashly decide to burn it.

And maybe that also means, rather than racing outside as the neighbourhood’s latter-day Jeremiah, I should empathize with the travails of adolescent boredom. I should use humour rather than rancour to tell the basketballers why the lockdown matters, that “the hoop will appear when the plague clouds clear.”

And then I can get back to my crossword, having made civility go viral.

John MacMillan is a Toronto writer, playwright and comedian who lives in Toronto and wouldn’t know one end of a basketball from another. 

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