It happened at the Punjab burrito place in a nearby village. I was so delighted to see it had finally reopened that I didn’t stop to consider whether, after a year of homecooked food, I was ready for the onslaught of their trademark Indian-Mexican spices. Yowser! Zowie! Boing! When I could speak again, I groaned to Rich, “Yogurt, must have…” I staggered inside and begged for dairy to cool the pain, and it was only as the cook placed two small containers of plain yogurt in my palms that I realized I had failed to put my face mask back on.
If I had stepped out of an airlock into deep space without my helmet, I could hardly have been more horrified.
I stammered an apology and fled. But then a curious thing happened. I realized it probably didn’t matter. For 14 months I’d assumed the slightest slip up — scratching my nose with unsanitized hands, leaning in to chat with a neighbor, letting my mask slide downwards — could result in hideous illness and gruesome death. But the stakes have changed. Here in Marin County, CA, 68% of us over the age of 15 are fully vaxxed, and 85% have received the first dose. The odds of surviving a 20-second exchange with a cook in an otherwise deserted restaurant? Pretty damn good. But I still felt terrible about forgetting my mask.
Navigating the shifting social taboos is more complicated than I ever expected. When all this started, I vaguely anticipated that someday there would be a joyful moment when we were declared officially safe and could emerge from isolation into rip-roaring celebration. This week, a friend sent me this ad, which captures the zany thrill of my fantasy.
That fantasy seems as far off now as it did a year ago. Even those of us who are lucky enough to be in areas stumbling toward herd immunity find ourselves in as much chaos and confusion as ever. Every friend, neighbor, and health official seems to hold strong yet differing opinions on safety protocols. For instance, around here, most people are still wearing masks outside, even though the CDC says we no longer have to in most circumstances, whether or not we're vaccinated.
A few days ago, seeing a masked woman approaching on the sidewalk in front of my house, I put on my mask as a courtesy. She said “Thank you,” in a clipped tone that suggested it was the very least I could do, and why wasn’t I wearing it as I walked out my door? There wasn’t time to pull up the CDC guidelines on my phone as she zipped past, or to show her the NY Times report that said, "There is not a single documented Covid infection anywhere in the world from casual outdoor interactions, such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table."
Misunderstandings abound whenever society shifts gears, leading to endless muddle and mayhem. According to author William Bridges, transitions occur in three phases: ending, the neutral zone, and beginning. “We cannot move forward until we have let go of who we have been, and what has been, in the past,” wrote Danya Ruttenburg in the Washington Post. “Only after we spend some time in the neutral zone does the beginning of our new selves, our new way of being in the world, emerge in earnest. The neutral zone is a time of unknowns. A time when you’ve left one thing and don’t know what will happen next. A time of terror, of possibility, of creativity, of openness, of uncertainty … That’s terrifying. But it can also be so potent, so powerful. Ripe. No doors have been closed. We are not quite at the end of this pandemic. But we’re starting to see what the neutral zone might look like.”
It seems to me something called the neutral zone really ought to be a little less terrifying, but OK, I’ll try to embrace it. “Stories are emerging, as the world begins to reopen,” wrote the AP’s Kelli Kennedy, “people secretly dreading each milestone toward normalcy, envisioning instead anxiety-inducing crowds and awkward catch-up conversations. Even small tasks outside the home — a trip to the grocery store, or returning to the office — can feel overwhelming. Psychologists call it re-entry fear, and they're finding it more common as headlines herald the imminent return to post-pandemic life.”
In a pandemic that's already exceeded our most paranoid fantasies, how are we supposed to cope with yet another period of uncertainty?
One woman suggests “voodoo effect” cooking. “Sometimes, busting through your stress is as simple as reasserting your dominance at the top of the food chain,” wrote Tucker Cummings in Lifehack. “Maybe it’s a little dark, but chopping veggies and butchering chickens can really take the edge off of even the most stressful days. Have a big fight with your boss? Pretend that carrot is his car and go to town on it. By using your ingredients like voodoo dolls, you’ll find that cutting through a couple of pounds of food has really calmed you down.” Yikes! That does sound a little dark. But potentially very therapeutic. Just don’t get carried away when you’re handling sharp knives. If you find yourself enjoying it too much, put down your weapons and step away from the cutting board.
Give yourself time to transition, advises Miami psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Bregman, who calls fear of emerging from lockdown “cave syndrome.” After the 1918 influenza, he notes, 40% of the population had what we’d now call PTSD. “It took 10 years for the people to get out of this.”
Ten years? I’m hoping for a slightly quicker fix than that. And Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society has one. They recently surveyed 6000 people and learned daily gardening improves wellbeing scores by 6.6% and reduces stress levels by 4.2%. Those with health issues reported gardening eased episodes of depression (13%), boosted their energy (12%), and reduced stressed-out feelings (16%). As the Good News Network put it, “It certainly sounds like it’s time to get your Vitamin ‘G’ on.” Since Rich refers to gin by that nickname, I immediately pictured him with a trowel in one hand and a G&T in the other, and yes, he did look pretty zippity-do-dah!
Whatever therapies you find most helpful, the first step is accepting that emerging from the pandemic — whenever it finally happens — isn’t going to be as easy or quick as we’d hoped. In fact, it’s going to be another tricky, messy, tumultuous time, and there will be days when the only thing that makes sense is hacking up defenseless tomatoes until your kitchen looks like the lair of a serial killer in a particularly noir thriller. But if we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that we can survive disruption, uncertainty, and extraordinary challenges. Yes, we can. We already have.
I recently had coffee with friends Ang and Ryan, who run a location-independent t-shirt business and are now creating stickers, posters, and murals. They're giving away lots for free, partly as a marketing strategy and partly, Ang explained, because they're about things that need to be said — and heard — right now.
“Like what?” I asked. Ang handed me this one.
I look at it every day and feel grateful, because I know it's true.
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“It’s a course about what?” I asked incredulously. “Why would you want to learn how to be grumpier?”
The subject was a sensitive one, as the atmosphere around our house has been rather wobbly this week. For a start — and I know just how petty and trivial this is — we completed what was supposed to be a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle and realized we only had 999. Somehow that last piece of the puzzle had wandered off, hitchhiking, perhaps, to another room on a fold of clothing, or maybe falling onto the floor and getting sucked into the vacuum cleaner bag; if so, it was already en route to the town’s landfill by the time the full horror of the situation dawned on us.
A few days later we had to cut down two venerable trees, a pair of 50-foot Liquid Ambers that had presided over our small garden for half a century. One was dead, the other on life support, and the time had come to make the painful decision to pull the plug. Of the ensuing chaos, noise, and staggering expense I cannot yet bring myself to speak. Afterwards, Rich spent hours stomping around the chip-strewn garden fingering plants and muttering, “See that? Used to be a gorgeous hydrangea… Oh my God, the Lamb’s Ears… And the succulents! They weren’t anywhere near those trees. How the hell did they get overturned?” As the final insult, our car — moved onto a village street to make room for the tree fellers’ vehicles — stayed fifteen minutes past the legal time limit and received a $40 parking ticket.
“And now you want to learn how to get into a worse mood?” I asked Rich. “Boy, this week just keeps getting better and better.”
I probably shouldn’t speak disparagingly of grumpiness, which enjoys a long and distinguished history in other countries, most notably Great Britain, which embraces it with almost unseemly fervor. Hugh Grant, for instance, was dubbed “Grumpelstiltskin” by friends of an ex-girlfriend. Winston Churchill was famous for his putdowns, such as the time Nancy Astor snapped at him, "If I were married to you, I'd put poison in your coffee." To which he replied, “If I were married to you, I’d drink it!” As author Kingsley Amis summed it up, “If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.”
According to the BBC article “Why it pays to be grumpy and bad-tempered,” we need to remember that “our feelings are adaptive: anger, sadness, and pessimism aren’t divine cruelty or sheer random bad luck — they evolved to serve useful functions and help us thrive.” Pessimism keeps us from being blindsided by unwelcome events. Anger fuels our flight-or-fight response and gives us an edge in problem solving. Venting our emotions can be cathartic.
Imagine how D.H. Lawrence felt after unburdening himself of these sentiments: “Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable soddingrotters, the flaming sods, the sniveling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulse-less lot that make up England today. They've got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is so watery it's a marvel they can breed.”
Hey, don’t sugar-coat it, D.H., give it to ‘em straight!
Was Rich hoping to learn how to craft rip-roaring diatribes and rapier-like zingers during the grumpiness course? Just what was this seminar about anyway?
“My name is Rabih Alameddine and I’m a novelist,” says the presenter in a short video describing the May 19 course. “I’m excited to be able to share my seminar ‘Five Things I've Learned About Being Grumpy.’” Short pause. “Hmmm. ‘Excited’ may be a little too much. I’m mildly interested in telling you about my seminar. It covers a couple of things about being grumpy. Five things is way too much.”
Alameddine explains that the true subject of the course is the elasticity of identity and imagination. “Identifying as a man makes me see the world a certain way. However, being male isn’t my only identity. My work has been described as immigrant literature. Yes, I am one. I’m an Arab, I’m American, I’m Lebanese, I’m an atheist. I’m a soccer player. I am gay. So many identities, so little time. These days, grumpy is the identity that I feel defines me more fully... Drawing on years of experience of being an outsider—and on sixty-some years of being an oddball—I will share a little about what I think works about claiming a certain identity or having one assigned to you by society, and what is limiting about it.”
Rabih Alameddine has lectured at M.I.T, the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, and other universities. He received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 2002. In the past he divided his time between San Francisco and Beirut; now he divides his time between his bedroom and living room. Photo: Oliver Wasow
The upheavals of this past year have taught us all something about our various identities — the ones assigned to us by society, the ones we choose for ourselves, and the ones that are thrust upon us by circumstances beyond our control. Since I began this blog in 2011, I’ve identified as an expat and a travel writer. And yet I’ve spent the last year in one place, adventuring no further than the supermarket or hardware store, writing about how to cope with the tsunami of domestic change brought about by the pandemic. I consider myself a die-hard optimist, yet I’ve had a lot of days when the world situation left me feeling blue, a state of mind the French describe so eloquently as avoir le cafard, literally "having a cockroach."
I doubt I’ll ever embrace a consistently grumpy attitude toward life, but I can learn much from those who do — about honesty, realism, and connecting with others more deeply on the common ground of truth. A touch of grumpiness may help me face up squarely to my responsibilities as a concerned citizen dealing with the pandemic, the economy, racial justice, and gender equality — to say nothing of climate change. If we don’t get that one right, soon none of the rest of it will matter so much. But hey, no pressure!
The optimist in me says we’ll find ways to make progress. How can I be so positive? Because Rich just walked into the shed that serves as his man cave, stooped down, and picked this up from the floor. And if that isn’t a good omen for better times ahead, I don’t know what is.
Ready to get in touch with your inner curmudgeon? If you decide to take the course ‘Five Things I've Learned About Being Grumpy" offered on May 19, please let me know. I'll be writing a post on the course and Rich's reactions, and it would be fun to include your comments as well. Send them to me at email@example.com.
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As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog. This is a promotion-free zone! I only write about things that interest me and that I believe might be useful for you all to know about.
This blog is a promotion-free zone!
As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things that interest me and that I believe might prove useful for you all to know about. Whew! I wanted to clear that up before we went any further. Thanks for listening.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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