“Debauchery!” said my sister-in-law Deb in our last Zoom call. “I just read that things won’t get back to normal until 2024 and then we’ll have a wild period of debauchery!”
These days everybody’s got a theory about how things will look “when all this is over.” Some financial types say this decade will mark the end of the world economy — “driving the last nail into the coffin of the globalists,” as one put it. Psychologists fear many of us will never hug, shake hands, or even leave our homes again. Inspired by predictions that das volk will continue avoiding bars, a German publication announced “the end of the night.” Some sociologists suggest young people will no longer engage in casual sex.
Malarkey, applesauce, and horsefeathers, say I. Clearly these prognosticators have forgotten about a little thing I like to call “human nature.” People always have — and always will — strive to make a buck, seek congenial places to raise a glass, and find opportunities to fool around. That’s why the debauchery prediction actually made sense to me. I tracked down the author, who turned out to be Dr. Nicholas Christakis, an esteemed Harvard-educated social scientist and physician who is running Yale’s Human Nature Lab. One of his areas of expertise is how our behaviors influence contagion in society. As you can imagine, his thoughts are in hot demand these days.
“Many people seem to think it’s the actions of our government that are causing the economy to slow – that’s false,” says Dr. Nicholas Christakis. “It’s the virus that’s causing the economy to slow, because economies collapsed even in ancient times when plagues happened, even when there was no government saying close the schools and close the restaurants.”
“Plagues are not new to our species — they’re just new to us,” observes Christakis. “During epidemics you get increases in religiosity, people become more abstentious, they save money, they get risk averse, and we’re seeing all of that now — just as we have for hundreds of years during epidemics.” The biggest difference this time around? “We’re the first generation of humans alive who has ever faced this threat that [can] respond in real-time with efficacious medicines. It’s miraculous.” He suggests vaccination will take all of 2021, and we’ll need the next two years to recover from the socioeconomic devastation left in the pandemic’s wake.
And then? Look out, world! Christakis predicts “another Roaring Twenties” like the one that followed the 1918 flu pandemic.
When it comes to eras, the original Roaring Twenties was, as they said back then, the “gnat’s eyebrows.” Having survived the twin traumas of World War I and the flu pandemic, our nation enjoyed a booming economy and was ready to release its pent-up desire to make whoopee. Women, energized by winning the right to vote, were busy breaking taboos: bobbing their hair, smoking cigarettes, wearing dresses that (gasp!) bared the knee, and getting fitted for (I blush to mention it) diaphragms for birth control. African Americans introduced the world to thrilling new music that gave the era its other name: the Jazz Age. Prohibition tried to put a lid on things, so public-spirited members of the underworld quickly set up speakeasies to provide enough giggle water to keep everyone zozzled.
The economy doubled in just nine years, and with so much extra voot jingling in their pockets, people bought radios — creating mass communication, the advertising industry, and modern consumerism. Egged on by radio sponsors, everyone spent as never before on stuff they’d never heard of and often didn’t need. And we’ve never stopped. One of the hottest controversies in the “when all this is over” debate is whether or not we’ll revert to the cycle of compulsive consumption that Madison Avenue has spent a century programming us to believe is not just normal but our patriotic duty and one of life’s great pleasures.
“The mutation of shopping from buying necessary stuff to being a leisure activity — “retail therapy” — has been one of the most miserable cons of modern life,” writes Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore. “If anything good has come out of this awful time, it is this … a pause in mindless consumption. ‘When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping,’ they used to say. Well, it’s no longer true, if it ever was.”
“If all this consumption was making us deliriously happy that would be one thing,” points out Harvard economist Juliet B. Schor. “But in fact what we find is after intense desires to acquire goods, Americans are discarding them at record rates.” How much stuff are we throwing away? Pre-pandemic it was about 300 million tons a year — 4.5 pounds per person per day. Top discards included food (30.63 million tons), plastic (26.82 million tons) and a little further down the list, textiles including clothing (11.5 million tons). I was aghast to learn that while sheltering in place we’ve been generating 25% more trash.
All this raises a moral dilemma. I’ve spent decades trying to be a responsible steward of the planet and doing my share of reducing, reusing, and recycling. Back in Ohio I organized our town’s curbside recycling program and Earth Day activities, and nowadays I write a weekly column on climate change for a Seville-based publication. But I live in the real world with conflicting priorities and tough choices. While I flinch at the thought of the amount of Amazon packaging flowing in and out of my house, my pandemic survival strategy involves doing as little in-person shopping as possible. I am well aware that 80% of the people who have died of Covid-19 are in my 65+ age group. Rich, who is 76, has a mortality risk factor 220 times higher than that of young people. I am doing everything I can to keep us both safe.
On that front, I have some exciting news: Rich received his first dose of the vaccine. Last Friday he went to the Marin County Fairgrounds, and after a lengthy, chilly wait to get into the main hall, he breezed through the vaccination in twenty minutes. The shot was so painless the nurse had to tell him it was over and he should 23 skidoo. When will I be inoculated? Theoretically soon, but shortages mean they’re delaying my age group a bit longer. Fingers crossed they have enough around for Rich’s second shot in a few weeks. The uncertainty is frustrating, but we feel lucky compared to our European friends, who don’t expect to be vaccinated until September, or possibly December.
Christakis may be right that the pandemic and its aftermath won’t subside until 2024. Or it could be pure banana oil. Who knows? As humorist James Thurber wrote, “The past is an old armchair in the attic, the present an ominous ticking sound, and the future is anybody's guess.” But here’s hoping that by 2024 the world is safe enough for us all to indulge in a bit of fun — if not outright debauchery, then a little lighthearted, distance-free socializing, when it’s finally safe to don our glad rags, fire up the flivver, and round up congenial pals for a night of putting on the Ritz.
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Merriment Turns to Mayhem When Halloween Prank Goes Wrong! Every year we see headlines about practical jokes taken too far. Like the October 31st my friend returned from college to find the family home empty, furniture overturned, the kitchen splashed with what looked like blood. She freaked, fled, and called the cops, who tracked down her mother and step-dad at a party, laughing over their hilarious trick. I suspect my friend still has trust issues to this day.
Then there was the high school teacher who wanted to foster Halloween spirit, so he burst into a classroom wearing a ski mask and brandishing a chainsaw roaring at full throttle. A prank about killing children in a school — who could object? The really surprising thing was that in the chaotic stampede only one student broke a leg. The lawsuit was settled out of court for $100,000.
And of course, there’s the famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, in which a (fictional) Martian invasion was presented in a breaking-news format so real it had viewers calling the authorities in a panic. Cops tried to storm the broadcasting studio to stop the show; the press turned the tale into living legend.
Americans have a history of going overboard at Halloween, and judging by all the skeletons, pumpkins, and giant spiders in my town, families are making the most of the season despite the specter of Covid-19 hanging over our heads. In fact, Halloween — with its apocalyptic atmosphere and emphasis on masks — fits fairly naturally into the pandemic landscape. No doubt pranksters are busy planning over-the-top stunts via Zoom.
Other upcoming holidays —Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, Las Posadas, Diwali, Chinese New Year, Winter Solstice, New Year’s Eve — are a bit trickier to navigate.
Let’s start with the big question: is it safe to travel home for the holidays?
The short answer is “no.” But you already knew that.
“Thanksgiving and the winter holidays may look like the only bright spots in the hellscape that is the end of this year, but they come with a unique-to-2020 set of logistical challenges,” writes JR Thorpe in Bustle. “This year, spreading COVID-19 to your community and the people at your table is much more of a threat than your aunt's awful sweet potato casserole.”
“I happen to like my family. But I’m not insane enough to risk death,” 82-year-old Mort Zwick told the NY Times. “I’m not going to rend my garments and cover up the mirrors because I can’t see my children … Every time I miss them, I think of how lousy they were at one stage of their growing up.”
“Mort’s got a point,” Rich said. “It’s the same for holidays; there were plenty of good times, but let’s not forget the lousy parts.” I flashed back to various verbal brawls and embarrassingly inappropriate jokes. The year someone didn’t show up because he was in jail. Close friends who said they never ate any dish their relatives brought because they suspected the food had been poisoned. The time a guest showed up drunk accompanied by a young girlfriend with whom he canoodled on the couch for hours, surrounded by twenty-five guests including his horrified mother and several fascinated adolescents.
Obviously we won’t have that kind of entertainment this year, so we’ll have to rely on our own resources to make the holidays fun and meaningful.
Trick-or-treaters won't be coming to our door this Halloween, so at dusk Rich and I are taking a driving tour of the most spectacular decorations we've found on our daily walks; I can’t wait to admire them in their full, spooky glory lit up after dark. As we cruise around, we’ll listen to songs like "Monster Mash" and of course, wear our masks.
I’ve often wondered why nobody writes Thanksgiving songs, and then I ran across 29 Perfect Songs to Add to Your Thanksgiving Dinner Prep Playlist. It has everything from Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” to Little Eva’s wacky “Let’s Do the Turkey Trot” to Fats Waller’s “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” followed by “Do the Mashed Potatoes,” courtesy of Mr. James Brown. Perfect soundtrack! We’ll be singing along to these golden oldies as we prepare turkey with all the trimmings. (I’m collecting recipes for the leftovers; if you have a good one, please pass it along.)
The great thing about Thanksgiving is that if you eat some turkey, you’ve pretty much fulfilled the ritual and can snooze contentedly in front of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Oh yes, they’re having one, but it’s been reinvented in hopes it won’t become a super-spreader.
The next holiday — which for us is Christmas — involves countless traditions: carols, cards, tree, stockings, presents. Rich and I won’t be celebrating with others this year, but we plan to honor all the customs, plus a few of our own, such as holiday snails. We’ll exchange silly gifts, dress up, cook a feast, eat too much, drink too much, and tell stories of Christmas disasters.
What disasters? Well, there was the time our dog Eskimo Pie found a gift-wrapped rum cake, ate the entire thing, and was discovered in a drunken stupor. Or the year we managed to find a live tree in Seville, back when árboles de Navidad were rare, and right after we decorated it, a strong wind blew through an open window knocking over the tree — which then shed all its needles. And there was that unforgettable moment when I tipped over a bottle of red wine on a snow-white tablecloth while eating Christmas goose with British friends. The list goes on and on.
But when you come right down to it, these moments add spice to the season. Like families, holidays are messy, maddening, and every once in a while, magical. We love them just as they are — not despite their imperfections but because of them.
In 2020, the way to prove how much we love our families is to stay away from them. This morning I heard from a Sevillano friend with whom I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas for many years. He and several relatives now have Covid-19; one is in the hospital.
“I made the potentially deadly mistake ,” he wrote, “of putting my guard down in a family setting. If nothing else please take this lesson. A common last name is not a certificate of immunity, and no matter how much you love someone we are all strangers when it comes to the virus. I was peer-pressured into excessive stays, not ventilating enough, and tolerating behaviors that exposed everyone... Thanksgiving is going to be a super-spreading event, and the best way to express love to our families is to remain alive for them.”
Like ill-considered Halloween pranks, this year’s holiday gatherings may seem like a good idea at first, but there’s a very real chance they will come back to haunt you and yours. I believe our best move is to fill the next two months with as much love, laughter, and social distancing as possible. And brace ourselves for whatever gobsmacking surprises 2021 has in store for us.
Good luck out there!
Do you have any holiday plans? Disaster stories? Recipes for leftover turkey? Please share them in the comments below.
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This article is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic, if possible while holding on to some shreds of our sanity and sense of humor.
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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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