A modest proposal: Can we stop calling the current, epidemiologically-sanctioned six-foot social distance “social?” I find it to be anything but social in the way that we know that word, unless “social” has been relegated exclusively to the adjective phrase, “socially conscious,” which a six-foot separation from other human beings indeed is in the context of protecting others and ourselves from the ravages of the coronavirus.
But “social distance” seems an almost cruel phrase in a time when all manner of sociability is, however justifiably, under siege, laid low, terrorized by a sub-microscopic virus that has ironically grown into a gigantic political football, bobbled back and forth between the left and right spheres of our political divide, both of whom are sounding decidedly anti-social notes of disdain as they watch, with mounting disapproval, the other side go about their lives.
It becomes obvious that as in all matters of life and death and risk, we must, within the bounds of any overt legal restrictions, come to our own determination about how best to navigate these uncertain, virus-laden waters that flash-flooded us mere months ago.
Such a vast, fundamentally different human landscape stretches before us these days, so far from our previous, lifelong experience of social interaction as to imagine it taking place under new rules on a distant planet, to where we have been transported as explorers or guests, unfamiliar with the mores of the native culture.
“Welcome to Planet Irony, where we encourage you, the most social of all mammals, to be social as you please, provided you stand, sit, crawl, walk, run or ride a minimum of six feet from all other human beings at all times, while wearing a mask over your mouth and nose. The only exceptions to this distance are those with whom you have lived on intimate, daily terms through the immediate past.”
The image of the Grim Reaper hovers over every touch, every potential, inadvertent exhalation of the dreaded coronavirus “droplets” that scientists have studied assiduously over these past months, working in labs the world over to measure the distances said droplets travel in various settings and conditions, how they attach to different surfaces, what their ambient temperature survivability is, how they respond to assaults by soap, by bleach, by sunshine.
So we have come to a point where the nearly universally practiced handshake, the utterly natural and needed pats on the arm, hugs, the offering of a shoulder for comfort, a hand to assist with a task, the sitting down to a meal or a drink or a game of Scrabble or a shared ice cream cone or a good cleansing cry: all strictly verboten.
And since we value our survival and want to avoid the dark specter of spending our last days on a ventilator untouched and not even permitted to be “surrounded by loved ones” as we breathe our last, we have learned all this, avidly, mentally filing it for ready, everyday recall as part of our intellectual armamentarium.
We are all epidemiologists now.
Problem is that we don’t really know enough because the virus is new and science works slowly, through laborious research that takes time and money and veritable mountains of patience from all those anxiously awaiting the latest guidance. “New York Times” columnist Nicholas Kristof noted the other day the curious phenomenon that “the nonexperts are supremely confident in their predictions, while epidemiologists keep telling me that they don’t really know much at all.”
That’s a line eerily reminiscent of the Yeats post here a couple of weeks ago: “The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Kristof then added, with the even-handedness he always tries to employ, how wrong “some” conservatives have been in initially dismissing Covid-19 as just another flu, while also noting that “some” liberals had predicted disaster when college president Jerry Falwell Jr. called students back to Liberty University after spring break, but the virus stayed quiet.
“Viruses are complicated,” he observed, in a line worthy of the driest California chardonnay (which you can still buy in stores, but don’t even think about heading to your favorite winery to taste one any time soon).
So if even scientists aren’t quite certain about how this virus behaves and what the relative risks of transmission and infection are, what are us common folk to do?
Storm state capitals while toting anti-tank weapons and pistols as some were doing last week, demanding that legislators open the state back up for business NOW, since the stormtroopers are so certain that whatever danger there might have been is past and further restrictions are unnecessary and destructive of their cherished freedom?
And does that hallowed word and concept include the “freedom” to infect other human beings?
Or on the other end of that spectrum, should people take pains not to separate merely six feet from other people at all times, but twenty-six or fifty-six feet, which I have many times observed them doing on trails and sidewalks, almost frantically stumbling through brush and up inclines to ensure a separation that seems not only adequately protective, but perhaps a wee bit overkill?
Surveying the sometimes loose, sometimes strict, sometimes subtle protocols we engage in to prevent possible infection, it becomes obvious that as in all matters of life and death and risk, we must, within the bounds of any overt legal restrictions, come to our own determination about how best to navigate these uncertain, virus-laden waters that flash-flooded us mere months ago. Risk assessment and management among humans is a delicate and highly individual affair, dependent partly on physical factors and partly on one’s psychological makeup.
My own sensibility in these matters starts first with the self-styled dictum, “Don’t do anything overtly stupid.” But within that corral, I try to balance the reasonable precautions advanced by experts with the acute knowledge that I won’t get any “lost” days back in this life (no one does, but age brings that realization painfully closer).
Which means that every dinner and journey and hug and performance and hike and bantering conversation and beer I am not experiencing now with my beloveds won’t really be “made up,” though with hope and luck and intention, they will return for encores at some blessed and gratifying point in the future.
Hence a striving for a reasonable balance that has allowed, when other parties feel similarly, for us to host friends on our outdoor deck for Happy Hours or an occasional meal, everyone careful to remain the asocial-social distance of six feet apart (more, usually), no touchie, all surfaces wiped beforehand, BYO only—including food & drink, plates, utensils, napkins, the whole bit. Select friends who share similar sensibilities have returned the favor.
But cheesh, does it ever feel weird, still, to say hello and especially good-bye without advancing toward them.
Our own assessment of this practice, along with social distanced walks and even a backyard pool meetup last weekend, is that the risk is so low as to be almost non-existent, while the reward is great. As large a role as Zoom and other platforms have assumed in the daily life of the contemporary world, they remain pale imitations indeed of actual, in-the-flesh conversations, from which we come away always with gladdened hearts and buoyed spirits.
Human proximity is, after all, a survival strategy honed over the eons, encoded in our very genes, just as vital to our well-being as the food and liquid that enable us to meet the day and the people we invite into it.
Of course, as alluded to above, risk factors and tolerance vary among different people, and for those for whom any risk at all may well prove catastrophic, or can’t be managed without undue anxiety, the equation changes.
What seems a wholly unnecessary annoyance to me—wearing a mask while driving alone in my car or while walking at dawn with not another human being in sight—may be another’s required comfort to venture outside at all.
“Different strokes for different folks,” went the old ’60s cliche. That has always been true among a species of such complex, individualized consciousness as ours. And it remains true today, with the added consideration, just as strongly honed over the eons, that we are in this together, and none of us will thrive our way through it alone, given that six feet apart is so often in our lives six feet too many.
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I agree! Right from the start a friend said it was physical
distancing, not social.
Cheers my friend who I miss
I had been wondering to myself what I would call it instead, Mary, and I think that’s perfect! Also draws a sharp line between physical distance and the emotional distance we have to try a little harder to maintain when we are forced to remain apart. Miss you, too!
Thanks, Andrew. We’re all doing the “get together”, “not too close“ dance. Thursday is garbage night on our cul de sac. We use the occasion to meet with neighbors, outside and six feet apart, for an hour of “trash talk”. We’re getting to know our neighbors. So quaint and refreshing.
The pandemic has given us another opportunity to examine our values and live new ways accordingly.
Be well, everyone, in the ways that make most sense to each of us!
Oh, God, that is brilliant, Al! Trash Talk! Wish I’d thought of it!
Very well said, Andrew, and thoughts I haven’t read before within the niagara of articles out there about the medical, technological, economic and other implications of this pandemonium, pandora, pan-whatever it is that we’re all living through. A few comments here.
Like Mary, I’ve rejected the ubiquitous and dreary phrase “social distancing” in favor of “physical distancing”. I read that the World Health Organization (that dangerous, Chinese-infested purveyor of false and misleading information and who knows what other nefarious plots to take down America) recently suggested the same, but acknowledged the cat is pretty much out of the bag on that and it’s too late to do much about it. Nevertheless, I persist in what I believe to be better and more upbeat language.
I’ve also taken up the term “distance socializing” with its more cheery connotation. You’re welcome to it.
And like Al above, I too have found this a marvelous opportunity to meet and get to know neighbors I have hitherto only nodded or waved to. It’s been an important silver lining in the dark clouds above.
My favorite silver lining is the delightful friendship I’ve developed with a 15 month old girl who lives a few doors away. Mom and Dad take her out several times a day riding in her little pink car, and we have struck up a relationship built around what I call the “laughing game”. I’ve discovered little ones love to laugh and respond enthusiastically when a grown-up laughs loudly and looks them in the eye, and that’s how it always begins. I laugh loudly; she laughs back and soon we’re off and running. She begins squirming with delight and jumping up and down so I do the same, all the while physically distancing of course. Meanwhile, her parents are highly amused by the sight of a 69 year old man laughing raucously for no good reason while squirming and jumping and generally acting like a 15 month old.
Who knows if I’ll die of this damn thing but I’m determined to have some fun with this strange new reality before I do.
Be well, stay safe and don’t let the bastards grind you down!
That is a beautiful scene with your new friend, David, puts a big grin on my face while I’m finishing lunch here, and I thank you very much for sharing it.
Similar for me: a 2+-year-old neighbor kiddo gets pushed on her front yard tree swing almost daily, and I most always stop to admire and kibbitz with her and chat up her young mothers from out in the street. Yesterday, her Mom pointed at me and said, “Hey, look!” as I ambled up. And for the first time ever, little Juney says, “Andrew!” Called me by name, and it made my day, the walk I was launching out on a little springier all the way through. Silver linings, indeed!
We have been fortunate here throughout this time of isolation to enjoy weather that fostered chances to be outside, both alone (because many people have had way TOO much time together) and at 6 ft social gatherings with a few friends. A week of unrelenting tropical rain here this week made me appreciate even more this personal freedom afforded by a beautiful southern Spring.
We all hit the wall with this at different times….sometimes several times in a given day, sometimes we are granted a longer reprieve. I woke last Sunday in a dire fit of longing to see my inaccessible friends and children, to embrace them and share a simple meal. It was visceral and real and hard. After a period of allowing myself to fully mourn the losses of this time I happened to be randomly graced with reflections of 3 others who grappled with similar issues (there are so many more). Think about the experiences of
– Nelson Mandela (imprisoned for 27 years, much of it in solitary confinement);
– Anne Frank (basically hid in a room behind a bookcase for 2 years) and
– Alexander Rostov (a fictional character sentenced by the Bolsheviks to lifetime house arrest in the novel “A Gentleman in Moscow”).
Each of these courageous people are inspiring and that inspiration is relevant to this time: they struggled to the full extent that we have these past months, and so much more. That Mandela came out of prison whole and sane Is nothing less than a triumph of the human spirit; Anne Frank created a lasting legacy of her experience with her courageous reflections and beautiful prose. Mr. Rostov’s most famous phrase is “Adversity presents itself in many forms, and one must master one’s circumstances or be mastered by them”.
So, I am no Pollyanna, and first off let me say that there are so many things wrong with the way this virus has been mismanaged and so many prices to pay that I could not begin to list them all. Time in the real, live, breathing company of our buds and our families is certainly near the top of the list. THIS IS HARD, it’s a crying shame and some days I am hanging on by a fingernail.
However, I’ll try my best to be safe, and I’ll keep trying….for my safety, the safety of those buds and family members and for other people’s buds and family members. I will reflect on the courage and staying power of those other brave souls (perspective is remarkably easy to achieve on this issue when I think about Mandela in year 23 of 27, say).
I miss dancing and sitting at the bar and hugging my grandchildren, I really really do! AND I am trying to focus on being well and sane, to be ready and able to do that as soon as possible, and not to let my yearning foolishly and arbitrarily move the goalposts of safety.
So here’s another Rostov quote I unearth many times each day these past months that seems like a rounded way to close:
“If patience wasn’t so easily tested, then it would hardly be a virtue.”
Was pleased to see you citing two real-world cases and one from fiction to make your point, Mary. The best fiction has its own integrity and often enough feels more real than real, while the two heroic real world situations speak so eloquently for themselves. Thanks!
Oh, and a few more thoughts. First, thank you Mary for the reference to Mandela and Anne Frank as reference points. I’m not familiar with “A Gentleman in Moscow”, but these days we have plenty of time to read so perhaps I’ll get to it.
I should mention my awareness of privilege in that I live on a broad quiet street surrounded by mid-New Jersey nature, complete with flowering trees that recently bloomed. Talking walks is peaceful and comforting in these times. My life is so far removed from those who live in crowded apartments in big cities and going out simply for groceries is a terrifying experience of small stores and narrow aisles. I have money in the bank and though I’ve taken a financial hit I have the resources to get by vs. the frightened meat packer ordered to work in dangerous conditions knowing that to refuse means no unemployment insurance and no food on the table.
This virus is not an equal opportunity danger, and I need to take seriously the responsibilities of my privileged life. There but for the grace of God, the color of my skin and the accident of my birth go I.
Thanks for this forum Andrew. I haven’t posted for awhile but I appreciate our friendship, and I chuckle at how it came about.
Almost seems we are leading parallel lives here, David—part of my conversation with Juney’s Mom this morn was exactly about how lucky I have it, enduring this at the stage of life I’m in. No fun, but once I run through a (very brief) litany of regrets at not seeing my daughter & her family, missing extended time with my friends & favorite hangouts, I feel like changing the subject, embarrassed to sound even one tiny note of poor me, given all I have, all that is not being interrupted in my life (school, career, paychecks, a long-labored over symphony premiere or art exhibit, normal child-rearing; it’s a long list).
Glad to have you rejoin and enrich the conversation here as well. The opportunities for it are far too sparse!
“A Gentleman in Moscow” such a wonderful book – love the Rostov quotes Mary. I would like to echo many of the thoughts here so far, I too am semi-hunkered down in a rather paradisical town in North Cal and feel guilty griping about any of our circumstances. I am most certainly out there with the legions of dog walkers and have detected a clear vibe of “we are all in this weird world of masks and distancing together” often sparking an extension of the “hi, how are you, how’s it going” that blossoms into a tidy conversation with a virtual stranger, in some way fostered by the shared experience of making our way through these uncertain times. For sure there are more kids out in the streets on bikes, skate boards, etc as lots of their peer activities are as yet taboo, and it does bring a sense of community and taking the time to hang out that is perceptively different… there are some “silver linings.” Funny how I notice slipping occasionally when seeing a good friend and extending a hand, or a slap on the back followed by the chagrin of “OMG I forgot”…the social dance in times of C-19 is strange in so many ways. It will be a continuing experiment as we each work out the pace and circumstances of how we will choose to move closer to something that resembles normal. I must admit as someone who flew quite a bit for work I can’t imagine being on airplane, but we’ll see… meanwhile the urgency to somehow productively address the multitude of “pre-existing conditions” (poverty/homelessness, racism, Trumpism, etc) laid bare by the virus looms large, this could just be the largest silver lining imaginable!
Right, Kevin, that’s but one of the Big Questions looming ahead: Could this crisis become existential in nature, challenging the entire order of things, propelling a Big Reset, or will the longing for a Return to Normal, given all the abnormality that abides, prove to be overpowering and leave us just settling into old familiar grooves, bankrupt as many of them were? I suspect much of that will depend on the engagement of the kids, i.e., the 20-thru-40-year-olds. Going to be and increasingly is their world, and perhaps they’ll see fit to grab it by the lapels and give it a powerful, lasting shake. Lord knows it needs it…
Many thanks for your report from Outpost West!