“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”
— Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
I don’t need to tell you that our world has become as bizarre and inexplicable as anything in the loonier fringes of science fiction. Having just returned to my native California after a very long absence, I feel as if I’ve passed through a time warp to arrive on another planet in a galaxy far, far away, possibly in a parallel universe.
Everything's different now, including my name, which is currently being dragged through the mud. I’ve been called Karen since 1951 and always considered it a serviceable moniker, if not particularly romantic or inspiring. Karen is a Danish form of Katherine that’s said to mean “chaste or pure.” (Possibly my parents were trying to send me a message; if so, it didn’t take.) Yesterday I learned that in American pop culture “Karen” has now become synonymous with pushy, sanctimonious, anti-vaccine, down-with-science, quarantine-is-communism, let-me-speak-to-the-manager middle-aged women — like the Tennessee gal photographed holding a sign reading “Sacrifice the weak, reopen TN .” When Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman proposed reopening the city’s casinos early as a “control group” to measure infection rates, she was called “an idiot,” “an actual monster,” and worst of all, “a Karen’s Karen.”
Yikes! Obviously I'll have to change my name to something less cringeworthy. What’s trending now in California? For females, it's often nature themes such as Luna, Meadow, and Elm; pop culture faves like Khaleesi, Lennon, and Paisley; hippy classics including Freedom, Nirvana, and Karma; and such non-binary names as River, Bear, and Noor (which means “light”). Do any of those sound like me? I don’t think so either.
But these days it isn't easy to define myself, let alone the cultural norms I'm supposed to live by. I miss the simplicity of Spain, which has a single national policy based on medical science. Lawmakers brawl over the details behind closed doors, but eventually they hammer out a plan and speak with a single voice, applying the rules uniformly throughout the country, with clear consequences (substantial fines, even jail time) for those who flout the law. You may not agree with every detail of the plan, but you always know where you stand in Spain. Here in America, it’s like trying find your equilibrium on a Tilt-a-Whirl fairground ride.
For instance, the CDC tells everyone returning from abroad to quarantine at home for two weeks, avoiding shared workspaces, classrooms, and public transportation. So far so good. But does that mean I can or cannot go out for walks? Is it OK to put on protective gear and shop for food? When friends drop by, should I ask them to leave? I can’t find a word online about any of this, and believe me, I’ve looked.
The only thing the CDC made abundantly clear is that I'm supposed to make notes twice daily on the form they gave me at the airport, recording any symptoms (cough, shortness of breath) and my temperature. Fun fact: even our body temperature has a new normal. The old standard of 98.6, established in 1851, has been recalibrated to a range of 97.5 to 97.9. Unfortunately, my readings kept falling short of those benchmarks, hovering around 95.5, then 94.3 and finally plunging to 93 degrees. I began to worry I’d contracted a sort of reverse COVID-19 (91-DIVOC?). Eventually, I realized the thermometer was broken. Whew! I tossed out the useless thing and had Amazon deliver a new one the next day.
And this brings me to one of the other gee-whiz-this-really-is-the-future aspects of my life in California: insanely fast online ordering. Yes, Seville has grocery delivery and Amazon.es, but I rarely use them. Even during the lockdown, Rich and I found it quicker and easier to don protective gear and walk to the market one block over. Now, in perpetual confusion over American self-quarantine protocols, I’m playing it safe for everyone’s sake, staying home and ordering online from the market five blocks away. It’s astonishing. Almost before I hit “send,” I start getting texts: Shopping for you now … Out of that brand of honey, how about this one? ... Our driver is on their way … Minutes later the stuff’s at my back door. I couldn’t get groceries that fast if I sent Rich sprinting out to buy them.
Being homebound, I can’t really comment on how the re-opening is going here, beyond noting that my region’s numbers are very low and state officials are proceeding cautiously and systematically, following the recommendations of qualified health professionals. (I know; what a concept!)
Mostly the priorities make sense; markets, pharmacies, gas stations, drive-in movies, dog groomers. But I was shocked to learn that, inexplicably, beauty parlors are not yet on the list of essential services. In Seville, barber shops and hair salons opened two weeks ago, but in the flurry of activity surrounding our departure, I decided to wait until I was back in the US. Boy, am I regretting that decision. Yesterday I persuaded Rich to trim the seriously shaggy mess at the base of my neck. He did well in this test area and may get the rest of the job soon. True, there aren’t a lot of other candidates right now. Although some of those dog groomers might be able to pep up my style.
Looking well-groomed, or at least not hideously unkempt, is my way of prepping for that glorious day when I come out of quarantine and go back into the world, possibly under a new name. Rainbow McCann? Dharma McCann? Nope and nope. I’ve also crossed Harmoni and Wynter off the list, because after a lifetime of proofreading, I couldn't abide going around with a name that looks like a typo.
“Our names,” said essayist Logan Pearsall Smith, ”are labels printed plainly on the bottled essence of our past.” He’s right. “Karen” is writ large on the story of my life. Why should I give it up, just because it’s been temporarily appropriated as shorthand for a particularly appalling category of crackpot? Confucius says, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” So hey, everybody, call me Karen.
Are you in a place that's relaxing quarantine and re-opening? How's it going? What are you noticing as you venture out into the world? Let me know in the comments below.
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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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