Chronicle: In 2021, we became “adjacent normals” without a script
I was recently invited to a small but classy end-of-year party, and I have to admit I was a little taken aback. Not by the fact of the party, which was beautiful, or the “vaccinated only” requirement on the invitation, which was necessary. No, it was the 8pm check out time that was so surprising.
It just seems too late to venture out, doesn’t it? Or am I the only one who got used to being in bed, or at least sitting in front of a screen, at 10 a.m.? And what else do you wear to a fancy party? My good shoes are literally covered in dust in the back of the closet.
Just when I was about to collapse on my bed in defeat, I thought of Dania Ramirez. If his character in Netflix’s “Sweet Tooth” could survive being cooped up in his office for months, then start his life all over again alone at the local zoo, I could very well dust off my party shoes and celebrate a holiday season that would otherwise” back to normal” is “adjacent normal”.
Now, of course, I’m grateful that I got to go to a party – about a week later and it might have been canceled. The threat of the Omicron variant has already shut down some holiday festivities, including, most recently, the Center Theater Group’s production of “A Christmas Carol.”
Bah, prankster? No. This holiday season will be even better than last year. Omicron completely missed Hanukkah, and neither mask mandates nor social distancing will stop “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” This new variant may have a name worthy of a Michael Crichton novel, but with any luck (and careful attention to CDC recommendations), it’s another step backwards from the genre that inevitably followed both. step forward in our fight against COVID-19.
Yes, it would have been nice if the end of 2021 marked the end of the pandemic. Instead, we remain stuck in this strange place between full-blown crisis and “everything is clear”. As this version of life as we knew it stutters through often perilous rewrites, we are once again left at a loss what to do. Can we travel? Organizing parties? Visiting family? Go to church/museums/theater?
“I forgot how to chat,” a friend lamented at a fall work event. Is schmoozing even allowed, she wondered; what was once known as “working the room” seemed potentially dangerous, even among a crowd that tested negative.
Clearly, there have been people who have ignored all the rewrites, flouted precautions, and dismissed medical solutions throughout the pandemic — that’s one of the reasons the pandemic is still with us. For responsible citizens, however, mid-to-late 2021 was a time of emergence for the “first since the pandemic.” First movie at the cinema, first dinner, first concert or play, first visit with grandma, first plane trip, first workout at the gym, first day back at the office, first brunch with mom. (OK, this might be a first.)
May some of these new freedoms be restricted or challenged again — and at Christmas! – is a monumental brake. COVID boredom is real, just like pandemic fatigue, depression, regret and impatience are real. Like characters in most post-apocalyptic tales, we’re haunted by flashbacks and references to times before – vague memories of a time when shows didn’t shut down, heading on a Saturday night until 9 hours (or even – gasp – 10 pm) was no big deal and a nearby cough didn’t send everyone into a panicked state.
Unlike those dystopian characters, however, we’re not faced with the kind of “extinction event” that popular fiction, including “Sweet Tooth” and the recent HBO Max series “Station Eleven,” demands of pandemics.
Far too many people continue to face life-and-death situations, heartbreaking grief and – certainly for healthcare workers – frustrated fury. But for most of us, the changes are much more subtle. “It could be worse” shouldn’t be the bar for any situation, global or personal – but one of the reasons post-apocalyptic fiction is so popular even during a pandemic is that, you know, it could be worse. Our streets are not crowded with empty cars of sudden deaths; the power grid and internet are still working and no one has turned into a zombie or given birth to a child with antlers (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
And at least this time we know what to do: get vaccinated or boosted, wear masks, wash our hands. Get tested if you think you are sick or have been exposed and self-quarantine if necessary. Do not complain about the new measures put in place for your safety. Many of those firsts mentioned above required a lot of planning, downloading test maps/results, and often a lot of time online. But once you’re there, Disneyland is still a reassuring Disneyland, even if more people wear masks than mouse ears.
In post-apocalyptic fiction, you know which characters will survive by how quickly they absorb a new situation. Denial is deadly; moping and arguing doesn’t help either. Life is far from “back to normal”, and if we continue to pretend or expect it to be, we will live in a state of constant frustration, with even more people thrown out of commercial planes or, even worse, dying in car crashes.
For now, we can still visit museums and indoor restaurants, go to parties, ice rinks and concerts, but that could change – and then possibly go back. Once again we have to deal with social conundrums that a month ago seemed less urgent – do we tell the lady at Ralph’s to put on a mask, or the loud-talking guy to put his on? Ring? (Seriously, if your face is too big for your mask, get a new mask.) Let’s say something when it seems like no one is checking vaccination cards at a place or at the gate of an airport where is proof of vaccination required?
Even if Omicron proves less threatening than feared, it will likely be years before some of us stop scrutinizing crowd sizes and spacing, wearing masks in shops and on transport. in common and to look at anyone who is visibly ill. (Remember when we all laughed as Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly haughtily refused to touch anything her sniffling assistant handed her? Who’s laughing now?)
In fiction, pandemics always move quickly – 80% of the world wiped out in seven days or whatever – which makes stories of survival and re-emergence much more dramatic and definitive. This pandemic has thankfully not left few survivors to recover and rebuild in a zombie-filled world with no cell phone service.
But that left us with no mythology to refer to or a plan to follow. (The last great pandemic was subsumed, at least in our narrative, by World War I and the generally higher death rates of 1918.) So here we are, at least narratively and socially, facing a world that still isn’t and who may never be quite like he was before and don’t know how to act.
The good news is that we can do it, we do it. Post-apocalyptic stories may not be helpful in the details, but they exist for a reason – to make sure we can survive anything. It’s upsetting to cancel a trip to Europe because the changing restrictions are worrying, but at least no one has to give birth without making a sound like Emily Blunt in “A Quiet Place” (which I realize is not is not a story based on the pandemic but still). Wearing a mask to a concert may ruin your appearance, but at least you have a lot more options for live entertainment than those poor folks who wait for a traveling company of Shakespearean actors to turn up once a year on “Station Eleven “.
Remember last year when so many things were closed or cancelled, when there wasn’t even room to hear a choir sing? This year we got to watch the LA Master Chorale, and while our singing with “Messiah” was canceled thanks to Omicron, it was replaced with outdoor Christmas carols. Of course, the miracle of the vaccine has been dampened by those who were unwilling or unable to participate, but if life hasn’t ‘returned to normal’, it is much better than it was in last December.
Here’s hoping it stays that way.