I was on top of the world, living high
It was right in my pocket
I was living the life
Things were just the way they should be
When from out of the sky like a bomb comes some little punk in a rocket
Now all of a sudden, some strange things are happening to me
-Strange Things by Randy Newman
Obviously we have all been sharing a common experience of the bizarre, more or less, since a little over a year ago. As the song lyrics above suggest, it was alike a bomb dropped out of nowhere and that has led to a lot of very strange things.
Fortunately, some of the very weirdest are past: we are no longer fighting over toilet paper, Hunger Games style. We are (hopefully) no longer wiping off our groceries like they have cooties. And, finally, some of us are vaccinated, though certainly not all, and that is leading to some entirely new very strange things.
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed
strange days indeed
–Nobody Told Me by John Lennon
As vaccinations begin to spread, the first weirdness we are facing is how to know when others are also similarly situated. I am noticing that many of my conversations (still mostly on Zoom) start with a discussion of vaccination status. Can you imagine? No one in my entire life, other than my husband or doctor, has ever asked me if I got a flu shot at the beginning of the conversation or how my blood pressure is doing. It’s as if we are all engaged in a nationwide HIPAA violation.
For some people their vaccination status comes out as a sort of humble brag, like they managed to outsmart the system; for others it’s almost an apology, as they realize they may have gotten to go ahead of you. For others yet its proof of their commitment to science, as they pose with cardboard cutouts of Dr. Fauci, who is now more popular than Taylor Swift but hasn’t got her luminous hair or record deal. For others its some form of political statement proving they are or aren’t on the “right” side of the aisle. Once again, strange as hell.
Rarely are one’s recent medical records displayed on Facebook or Instagram for all to see. The ultimate manifestation of this was the gymnast Evan Manivong who sticks his vault landing and displays his proof of vaccination card like it was his country’s flag. As someone on Twitter put it, this was “the ultimate flex,” prompting slang dictionaries everywhere to have to edit their definitions of what’s cool. If we could only make colonoscopies look that badass (no pun intended), we could save a lot of lives.
I know it’s strange
But my brain’s really gone insane.
–Slap by Ludacris
The social ramifications of the long span of pandemic-induced weirdness run deep, and it’s as if we all have forgotten how to engage with other humans. Frankly, if I were going to kick off another startup, I’d start the 11 millionth new mental health telehealth company and it would be focused solely on agoraphobia, because never has there been so large a total addressable market. Agoraphobia, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is this (WebMD definition):
Agoraphobia is a rare type of anxiety disorder. If you have it, your fears keep you from getting out into the world. You avoid certain places and situations because you think you’ll feel trapped and not be able to get help. For example, you might worry or panic when you are in:
- Public transportation (buses, trains, ships, or planes)
- Large, open spaces (parking lots, bridges)
- Closed-in spaces (stores, movie theaters)
- Crowds or standing in line
- Being outside your home alone
You may be willing to go just a handful of places, or you may even dread leaving your house.
Sound familiar? Mental health conditions are usually not contagious, but COVID has made it seem like this one is. Historically, agoraphobia affects a very small number of people ( <1% of the population). But right now, damn near everyone I know currently has some form of agoraphobia-like anxiety and it is making human interaction pretty strange, that’s for sure.
Let’s start with the greeting, even among two fully vaccinated people. Do we wave from afar, elbow bump, fist bump, hug? Since nobody knows the current status of any other person, these greetings are like watching cars leave parking spaces at the grocery store – an exercise in slow-motion awkwardness where your eyes dart all around to be sure you are not going to collide with something with which you’re not supposed to collide. Even for the vaccinated, we have been without norms of engagement for so long, we are like teenagers on a date, fumbling all around and uneasily avoiding eye contact during the process. And then there’s the whole dance about social distancing. Still important when you’re vaccinated? Okay to sit across from each other maskless when eating at a restaurant and both are vaccinated? What about when one is half vaccinated? What about when taking a walk outside? On and on and on the confusion goes.
Is it strange to dance too soon?
–Cosmic Dancer by TRex
Even where we are “allowed” to engage with those who are deemed “largely risk free,” it just feels weird to have people around. I used to draw energy from crowded industry conference events where I could see so many friends and meet new ones. Now I am not sure when I can imagine heading back into that milieu, even a healthcare conference where you would hope that most are vaccinated. Same story for live music events – that was my jam prior to March 2019. I typically attended at least 1-2 concerts a month. But knowing that 10,000 of my closest friends will be singing out loud all around me, makes me want to encase myself in Tupperware before even considering being in such a gathering. I’m short, but it’s hard to get a big enough container – unless this is Tupperware’s big opportunity to create head-encasing packages that are sold at the merch counter. Sandy Squirrel has long had this figured out.
Ps – The Variants would be a great band name.
This time is especially confusing because we have all been talking about how we want to bust out of our recent captivity and go wild. And yet, though no one is suggesting we should revert to our original freestyle state of play, we are hearing that it’s ok to socialize in small groups, go to restaurants, maybe even go back to our offices. Some people are just fine with that and rushing out the door, but I think even they feel the oddness of the social experiment we have recently endured. I mean, come on. Our offices look like the last moments of Pompeii, as my CEO recently stated — like human life evaporated in an instant and our dead plants and old papers are covered with the dust of being untouched for an eternity. I can only imagine how many office-based aquariums look right now – there may actually be the cure for hair loss or entirely new species spawned in some of those things. Yikes.
Life is always strange,
You just get used to it.
–Wondering by Todd Rundgren
It’s hard to say when and if we will really be “back to normal.” Many feel that their old normal was not that awesome, when it comes right down to it. I, myself, cannot imagine traveling at the pace I used to travel because, annoying as it sometimes can be, Zoom is a pretty effective way to have many meetings.
Other things I and many others have learned: Telehealth is a highly effective way to engage with the medical system, not just in theory, but in reality. Some of the people I used to make time to see were not worth the time and I did it out of obligation/guilt/insert negative motivation here. What I learned from that is that it’s okay to prioritize my favorite people and even myself sometimes – I’m not good at that yet, but I’m trying. I have also learned that I can be cooped up with my family for extended periods of time, which is a plus since they live here. And perhaps most importantly, I have learned that I can go a year without buying anything from the Manolo Blahnik store. I haven’t worn any of my extensive shoe collection in over a year and I’m worried people won’t recognize me when I do venture out into the public. It’s possible that I am the only one who learned that last one.
When you’re strange
Faces come out of the rain
When you’re strange
No one remembers your name
–People are Strange by The Doors
In the end, I am a pretty social being, so I am looking forward to re-connecting with friends and colleagues in-person in a way that doesn’t make me pull back as if I’ve seen a vampire. I am dead tired of worrying about whether I can show affection to people I care about without risking my own and others’ lives or sticking an elbow in someone’s eye. So, watch out, I am going to be so damn cuddly when this shit is over. It will be an interesting science experiment to determine when fear of engagement trips over into FOMO. What a long, strange trip it’s been, as the Grateful Dead, would say. But hopefully it is a trip that leads to the joy of closeness with friends, laughing in person with colleagues and visiting with family without limits before much more time has passed.
I am hoping The Variants will soon bring their worldwide tour to an end so we can get on with it.