“You won’t believe what we did last night,” a friend told me Sunday. “We went out to a movie! Every other row was blocked off, and there was hardly anybody in the theater. A few rows in front of us there was a woman with a collie dog. The movie was a classic comedy, and I swear during the funny scenes I saw that dog chuckling right along with the woman, and at the big moments he howled with laughter. After the show, I went up to the woman and said, “I just have to tell you that your dog is amazing. He really seemed to love the film.” And she replied, “Yes, it is amazing, because he hated the book.”
OK, some parts of that story aren’t strictly true, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out which ones. (Yes, you guessed it. The dog never even read the book. Although he did skim a couple of online movie reviews before he went.)
Now, I haven’t been to a movie theater in … wait, what year is this? But I can easily imagine the dizzying effect of the experience, looking around the familiar place and being bombarded with conflicting messages: Hey, this is fun! It’s a disease vector! Run for your life! Let’s get popcorn!
That got me thinking about the way perception shapes our reality. We say “seeing is believing” and devote a huge amount of our brain capacity — 30% of its size, two thirds of its processing function — to the visual cortex. But can our eyes be trusted? Not so much. “Sight is an illusion,” says author Isaac Lidsky, who learned this the hard way when he went blind at 25. “Numerous studies demonstrate this. If you are asked to estimate the walking speed of a man in a video, for example, your answer will be different if you're told to think about cheetahs or turtles. A hill appears steeper if you've just exercised, and a landmark appears farther away if you're wearing a heavy backpack. We have arrived at a fundamental contradiction. What you see is a complex mental construction of your own making, but you experience it passively as a direct representation of the world around you.”
Our emotions, Lidsky says, are no more reliable. In particular, fear makes us interpret input that’s ambiguous or uncertain (a rustling in the bushes, say) as a clear and present danger (a sabre-tooth tiger!) when in fact it may be harmless (a light breeze). “Your fears distort your reality,” he observes. “Psychologists have a great term for it: awfulizing.”
Over the past year, awfulizing became the norm — and to be honest, it’s proven to be a very useful survival tool. Was there ever a better time than 2020 to assume the worst? Look at New Zealand; the moment they heard about the coronavirus, they reacted as if it were a sabre-tooth-level threat, and in the entire country of five million people only 26 were lost to Covid-19. Most countries, including mine, weren’t so wise or fortunate. Now, we’re pinning our hopes on the vaccines creating a future in which the Earth is no longer ruled by the virus. If/when that happens, we’ll have to stop viewing awfulizing as the default setting and overhaul our perceptions of what constitutes sensible living. In the meantime, we need to figure out how to ease into unfamiliar social territory and update our rusty social skills.
In the Saturday Night Live skit Post-Covid Dating, twenty-somethings in a bar awkwardly attempt to connect. After a series of gaffes and misunderstandings, he asks, “Would you care to dance?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” she says, leaping up to gyrate on her own, the way to do when you’re home by yourself and your favorite song comes on.
“No, I meant with me!” he says.
There are going to be moments like that for all of us. Vaccinated friends, who are starting to invite people over for the first time, report disconcerting results. “I’m so used to Zoom that after forty minutes, I was ready to wrap things up. They stayed on another three hours!”
And let’s face it, there are a few features of this era it’ll be hard to give up. “I sleep in pajamas,” tweeted @HenpeckedHal, “just because it’s nice to wake up already dressed for work.” As @danadonly noted, “2020 was a kinda bad year for me but a really good year for my dog who did not have to be alone for a single second.”
Everyone has had to make adjustments. Early in the pandemic, Miles, a mixed-breed rescue dog, took an instant dislike to masks, barking wildly whenever he saw one. (As we all know, he is not alone in this. Possibly he was watching too much Fox News.) “I think it was hard to not be able to observe facial expressions, for him, on people that we came across,” his human, Alex Savas, told the Washington Post. “It was like, ‘What is this new creature I’m looking at here?’”
Savas invited pals to come over wearing masks, acting friendly, and bearing slices of turkey for Miles. “He was very physically anxious,” Savas recalls, “making his anxious, whiny noises, very skeptical about going up close to get the treat.” Eventually desire won. “Cold cuts will take you a long way in any situation.” Today, Miles navigates a fully masked world with serenity, keeping an eye out for any bits of turkey that might come his way.
Right now, an entire generation of pandemic puppies is about to have their lives turned upside down. No more 24/7 companionship! Two walks a day instead of eight! Hours without treats! How’s a puppy supposed to get through the day? Tearing open your couch and eating all your shoes will help pass the time, but what to do after that?
Veterinarians have plenty of practical advice including establishing routines, crate training, food puzzles, smooth jazz, NPR, and white noise machines. You might find it easier — and more cost-effective — to persuade your boss to let you work from home. Not possible? You can always try workshops such as Communicate with your Animal Telepathically or Animal Energy Healing.
Do some attention-starved pets simply need the psychological pick-me-up of a makeover? A flamboyant hairdo (known in the trade as “creative grooming”) guarantees everyone will make a tremendous fuss over your dog. The groomers all swear the dyes are perfectly safe and the animals love being fawned over. Personally, I suspect the dogs are just biding their time until they can find a nice big mud puddle to jump into.
Figuring out how to navigate a changing landscape is difficult at the best of times (which these are not). “I consider social skills a bit like learning a language,” said essayist and autistic savant Daniel Tammet. “I’ve been practicing it for so long over so many years I’ve almost lost my accent.” This new phase of the pandemic will require all of us, including our dogs, to relearn the language of social interaction, let go of our habit of awfulizing, and embrace whatever comes next. Good luck! Let me know how it goes for you (and your pets).
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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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