The best part of winter quarantine is that I don’t have to yell at my kid to stay away from other people outside because nobody goes outside. Nobody but me anyway. An astrologer once told me my Aries moon is the reason I can’t sit still. I don’t know about that, but staying inside does make me nuts. Yesterday I went for a walk and started kicking a ball of ice like a soccer ball. I was very into it, feinting and striking my way all the way around the block. I stopped at the communal mailbox before I went inside to see if anything came for the neighbors I’m house sitting for. I flipped through the few pieces of mail in the box because they asked me to watch out for an important letter from USCIS. I was bobbing my head, humming under my breath, jamming to Time After Time. The song was stuck in my head from the love songs playlist the kid put on six hours earlier for Valentine’s Day because she is a sap. I didn’t see the letter I was looking for but I must have seen something, maybe out of the corner of my eye, because I turned my head, and there was a man, just standing there. “Hi,” he said. I looked at him and screamed. The shock of seeing another person in this winter wasteland, of being ripped from my reverie, rippled through my whole body and I screamed with my whole body, too. Slight bend in the knees to brace myself, head back to project into the common area. As I was screaming, I recognized the man. He was a neighbor of course, someone I know well, a friend. He was standing about ten feet away, giving me a respectful distance and waiting patiently for me to finish checking the mail, and I was screaming loud enough to bring the rest of the neighborhood running to the windows. He started laughing and I made a joke about how long it’s been since I’ve seen another person, while I hastened to close the mailbox door and get out of his way. My instinct was to barrel back home after apologizing for being a total freak, but I forced myself to turn halfway and stay, ten feet away, while he checked his mail. I couldn’t figure out what to say, so I vomited more self-deprecating jokes, while I waited for him to help me out. “How are you? I’m not crazy, but how are you?”
We survived the interaction, but man. If seeing people is weird, talking to them in person is even weirder. I had to consciously remind myself that small talk is not only appropriate but worth the effort. And it was effort. It took actual work to pull the right words from my brain, to figure out what from my life might be relevant to his. When we had exchanged what felt like enough sentences to pass as an actual conversation, I raced over to my neighbors’ house, dropped their mail in a bin on the floor, and proceeded to have an extended conversation with the old gray cat that I was there to feed. After that I went home, still a little embarrassed but mostly delighted to have an anecdote for my family and content for my blog.
I’m listening to the audio version of Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, the memoir/advice book by Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, the hosts of the true crime podcast, My Favorite Murder. I don’t actually listen to this podcast and I only started the book because it had a catchy (to say the least!) title and was immediately available on my library e-reader app and I hesitated before checking it out. I listen to a lot of podcasts and I definitely do dabble in true crime in several of the formats via which the culture/my husband has sought to force it down our collective/my own throat–see: Serial Season 1 (murder), Accused (murder), Bear Brook (murder), Last Seen (art heist!), The Staircase (murder?), The Jinx (murder), The People vs. O.J. Simpson (this one was not that good, right?) and probably so many more I don’t even remember–but I don’t consider myself a fan of the genre. I’m sort of squeamish and I’m sensitive to how people, especially men, sometimes talk about violence in a way that seems like they glorify or get off on or are just totally unmoved by it. I can also have a short attention span so if the storyline of the murder and/or investigation is not immediately gripping, you will lose me in the procedure and backstory and tangents that go nowhere. Also, I once read this post from Ask A Manager about an employee who was sickened by how often and gleefully her coworkers talked about violent crime and, honestly, I related to the prudish letter writer!
Nevertheless, I am listening to Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered, and I’m loving it because the authors are relatable weirdos, compelling storytellers, moving writers, and funny. They are also unabashed feminists, which, really, I think should be a prerequisite for any job that involves investigating/discussing/dissecting/preventing grisly crimes against women. The chapters in the book seem to be based on various catchphrases and credos from the show, one of which is “fuck politeness.” Fuck politeness because politeness will keep you stuck in dangerous situations when you are afraid of overreacting or being rude or hurting someone’s feelings. Fuck politeness because politeness will let you override your instincts, the alarm bells going off in your head, the red flags flapping your face. Please note: politeness is not the same as kindness. Do not fuck kindness. Never fuck kindness. Fuck politeness because politeness can get you killed.
As soon as I heard the Murderinos’ theory of why fucking politeness is a life-saving imperative, I knew it was true. Looking back over my own blessedly abbreviated history of finding my way into and out of all manner of nettlesome, nasty, and noxious scrapes, I see that the pattern was always the same: 1) I followed my own underdeveloped sense of self-esteem onto the outskirts of a shady situation; 2) social grooming to be polite and pleasant muted me as I followed someone else smack into the middle of the danger zone; and, eventually, 3) my survival instinct screamed at me to fuck politeness and get the fuck out.
I’m thinking of the time I let a fully-grown weather-beaten fifty-something man I met buying cigarettes at the 7-Eleven into the car with me and my nineteen-year-old girlfriends, let him tag along with for hours going to various parties, brought him into our house at the end of the night, nervously waved off my roommates as they disappeared into their bedrooms with their boyfriends, and then resigned myself to hanging out with this guy for however long he stayed at my house. I desperately wanted to sleep, too, and I was terrified that this man thought he was on his way to my room, but I was afraid to ask him to leave after spending the whole evening with him. I was convinced I owed him my company for as long as he wanted it. If my anxiety was through the roof even before we got high, it went stratospheric after. Somehow, my altered state made it clear: this guy needed to go. My mouth was moving a mile a minute but not saying any of the things it needed to say. I knew it was unforgivable to kick him out after taking his drugs and if I wasn’t going to have sex with him the least I could do was be entertaining. It wasn’t until he leaned over me that I figured out how to fuck politeness. I jumped off the couch, sprinted to the back of the house, and started pounding on my roommate’s door and screaming for her and her boyfriend to make him leave. They did. I woke up the next morning with huge bruises on my legs and no idea where they came from.
My conditioning for is so strong that when the man came back the next day I refused to see him but told my roommates to tell him I was sorry. My politeness drive is so strong that I put this man on a list of “people I have harmed” when I worked the eighth step years later. It really was shitty to smoke his shit and run. I’ve forgiven myself for the dumb choices that put me in that situation. It’s harder to forgive myself for not knowing a way to get out of it without acting like a bitch, a trainwreck, a hot scary mess, even though I knew in the moment that hopping that train was what it would take to save my life.
I’m writing this vulgar overshare of post for COVID-related reasons.
When the pandemic hit, I rarely wore a mask. I never went anywhere except for walks around the neighborhood and it was frigid for weeks, so I scarcely saw anyone. Even when the weather warmed up, it was so rare that anyone came anywhere near six feet and it was so easy to just cross the street if I saw someone coming my way. Around Memorial Day more neighbors started spending time outside. At first I tried to keep my distance and when their kids ran up to me I would panic and tug the bandana tied around my neck up over my nose. When the data started to come out about the relatively low risk of transmission outside compared to indoors, I started to relax. When experts started to suggest expanding shelter-in-place bubbles to include one or two other families as a means of preserving mental health and making this thing sustainable, I started to relax. When Illinois started to flatten the curve and move into new phases of reopening, I started to relax. I got comfortable talking to my neighbors outside without a mask. I got comfortable taking my daughter to the playground without a mask. I got comfortable leaving the house without even grabbing a mask just in case.
That’s changing, though. The summer–hell, the year–is halfway over and the pandemic is still going strong but people are pouring out of their houses onto the sidewalks, into the parks, onto the beaches and trails and streets. More people I know are getting sick. The potential long-term complications of the virus are starting to look scarier. Now, when I see people outside, I recoil like I did back in March. I reach for my mask. It feels awkward to don a mask outside when I’ve been walking around without one for so long. It feels rude to pull it up when I pass people who aren’t wearing theirs. It feels rude to wear it when I’m with people I’ve been hanging out with outside since May. Obviously, I know it’s not objectively rude to wear a mask, but it feels that way sometimes. Social conditioning is fucked like that. Even worse than feeling rude, it feels like an admission of fault for not wearing one in the first place. Luckily, I know how to override my stupid social anxieties to save a life:
Fuck politeness. Fuck what other people think.
It doesn’t matter if you think or know you should have done a thing a long time ago or if you’re embarrassed or afraid to just be doing it. It doesn’t matter how hard you committed to your earlier course of action or how far it took you off course. It’s never too late to course correct and do the right thing.
I’ve heard it said a couple of times that being forced to shelter-in-place put an end to fear of missing out. Before this all started, fear of missing out drove us to overcommit and overextend ourselves, to say yes to things when we really wanted to say no, and to stay out longer than we should have. When we did find ourselves at home, fear of being left out drove us to scroll through tagged photos on Instagram and Facebook with knots in our stomachs, and swirling thoughts like, “What was I doing that weekend” and “Why didn’t I know about this?” Now that are our feeds are filled with our immediately family members, at-home graduation, birthday, and anniversary parties, and endless loaves of bread, it’s clear there’s not much going on to be jealous of.
Or is there?
Perhaps I suffer from a more virulent strain of FOMO that everybody else, stemming from a more deeply-rooted insecurity, but I don’t have to look too hard for signs of life carrying on without me.
The underground dinner parties for the DC elite were easy to dismiss; that was never my world and, frankly, I ate up the backlash against people flaunting their privilege in the early days of the pandemic with a healthy side of schadenfreude.
An early suggestion that parents cope with the no playdates guidance by picking a “best friend family” stung a little. There are lots of families with young kids in our area, but we’re no one’s best friend. As my daughter’s budding social life died on the vine, kids from her class reported during Monday Zoom calls that they’d spent the weekend playing with “just one” friend. We tended the hurt with salve we picked up up on the moral high ground and reassurance that this was temporary.
The first time I video chatted my family out west and found my siblings and parents and nephews all together in one place I hung up the phone and cried. They were all outside, all properly socially distanced around the pool, around the firepit. They weren’t doing anything wrong, but they were together and I was starting to come apart.
At the park, I play with my daughter near but not exactly with other families who are less vigilant about keeping their kids apart. Like all kids, my daughter has a violent sense of justice. Usually I try to tamp it down, complicate her view of the world, model empathy and open-mindedness, remind her that we live life in our own lane. Other days, I let her screams of “WHY AREN’T THEY SOCIAL DISTANCING!” go unanswered because I’m as pissed as she is.
In the house, I hear voices drift in from outside, peek out the window and spy my neighbors barbecuing with friends. The good smells good but what I really crave is the conversation.
I attend virtual church with 150+ other people and virtual AA meetings with people who may or may not know my face and my name, but I have yet to be invited to a virtual happy hour.
I know I’m not really missing out. I know we’re all struggling differently, even the people who seem to be taking this all in stride. I know I have a lot and that there are a lot of people who look at the pictures I take and the words that I write about my life and they ache, because they want what I have.