On being ... more aware

By Ingrid Sapona

I switched tv/internet providers and as part of the deal, I got a two-month free trial of HBO. The one-line description of the miniseries The Undoing intrigued me. It’s an HBO production and it stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Since I like both of them, I decided to check it out.

I have odd/bad viewing habits. Usually I have the tv on in the background as I’m doing something else (a bit of food prep or light housework, for example). If I’m familiar with the actors and the characters they play, I typically follow along just by listening and glancing at the screen every now and then. When starting a new show, however, I try to give the screen my undivided attention to get the characters straight and to decide whether the story’s interesting to me.

So, the other day I sat down and started watching The Undoing. After the opening credit montage there’s a short scene that foreshadows some plot point that will no doubt be central to the series. Don’t worry – no spoiler alert necessary because I couldn’t even tell you what happens in the first episode.

The truth is, I pretty much tuned out because I was distracted by the very next scene. Actually, I’m not even sure you’d call it a scene. It was a series of still photos of the stately buildings along Central Park West that then dissolve to a short snippet of film showing a bustling New York City street full of cars. When I saw all the traffic, the thought that immediately popped into my head was, “Oh, this is a period piece. It obviously takes place pre-Covid.” I know – a pretty odd though to become distracted over. And yet, distract me it did.

I was struck by how quickly my subconscious compared the brief, bustling urban street scene with the desolate downtown streets that have become the hallmark of large cities grappling with Covid-19. It’s the same kind of thought process I’d have if I was watching a movie and noticed all the cars were Model Ts. In that case, my mind would go to work to figure out what era the film is set in based on the cars. But even so, I was surprised by the fact that in just seven or so months, my subconscious has obviously adopted a different vision of what a contemporary urban street scene looks like. So, the notion of “the time of Covid” has already become a social reference for my subconscious.

That got me thinking about other changes taking place in society that seep into our subconscious without us even noticing. And of course, once I started thinking about this, I noticed others are thinking about the same thing. Indeed, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column on Oct. 28th titled, “The Floor of Decency”.  In that piece, Brooks posited that before the Trump presidency there was a “basic minimum standard of behavior to be an accepted member of society”. As he put it, “… a lot of us weren’t even really conscious of this floor. It was just there, like the sidewalk you step on when you walk down the street.”

Brooks argued that Trump hasn’t just lowered the floor – he has smashed it. He refers to various things Trump’s said and done to show that there no longer is such a floor. That floor, says Brooks, upheld a “basic standard for political behaviour so it was not just dog eat dog.” And with the floor gone, citizens lose faith in government, institutions, and ultimately, in each other.

The conclusion Brooks basically comes to is that the years of Trump have made him aware of how fragile our standards of basic decency are. Armed with this keen awareness of the importance of a floor of decency, he ends on a hopeful note: that a new leader may “bring us back to a world of no bottom.”   

I decided to write about these stories today because to me they have a common theme. They’re both about the idea that lurking below our consciousness are norms, views, and standards that it’s easy to ignore until something comes along to uproot them. And, while it isn’t that important to became aware of something like “the time of Covid” becoming a reference point for our lives, it was a good reminder to me of just how fast notions become engrained in our subconscious. And, coupled with Brooks’ new recognition of the significance of a floor of decency, I have a new-found interest in uncovering the values and ideas lurking in my subconscious. After all, if we don’t learn to recognize the norms and values that matter to us on a subliminal level – things like honesty and integrity – we run the risk of letting them slip away.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona 


On being … a dose of pandemic wisdom

 By Ingrid Sapona

I don’t know about you, but I’ve really enjoyed some of the pandemic-related funnies folks have circulated. One friend of mine was a particularly diligent forwarder of Covid-humour those first few months. I have no idea where he got them all, but he sent a weekly compilation every Friday. The emails tapered off when he returned to the office, but he’s recently revived the mailings (in honour of the second wave, I think).

Three from his latest batch struck particular chords with me and – like all good humour – got me thinking. The first one was this tongue-in-cheek comment on hindsight:

Besides putting a smile on my face, the comment brought into focus a couple of realizations. First is the simple truth that back in March, few among us would have imagined that in October we’d still be missing some of simple things we once enjoyed (like the happy-go-lucky freedom of eating out). In an odd way, the joke also speaks to another realization I’ve come to as I’ve observed subtle changes in peoples’ behaviour of late. As the numbers of COVID cases have been going up again, more than a few of my friends have mentioned things they’re doing now, “before things get closed down again”. They’re going to get their hair cut, for example, and stocking up on “essentials” they fear might soon be in short supply. In other words, they’re ordering dessert while they have the chance! Of course, the reason this simple funny comment rings true is because of the life lesson at the heart of it: make the most of today because no one knows what changes tomorrow will bring.

And, for those prescient few – I’ll call them the Covid-whisperers – who might claim they realized early on that the rest of 2020 would be pretty much a write-off, consider this gem of pandemic comic wisdom:

I’ll bet it applies to the Covid-whisperers too…

But on a serious note, I imagine that for some it reinforces a belief that five-year plans are a waste. For other, perhaps it brings to mind the famous stanza in Robby Burn’s poem “To a Mouse” about the best laid schemes… What I thought of when I read it is not the folly of planning where you’ll be in five years. I say chart away and set sail – but do so knowing that the most important skill you’ll need is the ability to adapt!

And finally – this last one I love because it’s both sweet and profound:

Like many, over the course of the pandemic, I’ve reflected on how I’m coping and I’ve read about how others are coping. For folks who’ve remained healthy, it seems that how they’re coping has a lot to do with their economic situation and with the day-to-day tasks they have to juggle. For many women with families there’s a lot of pressure related to keeping children engaged and it’s a lot of work getting groceries and preparing meals day in, day out for the gang. On the flip side, some who live alone – especially seniors – are having a rough time because they feel socially isolated. By comparison to many, I feel very fortunate that I’ve not felt much stress or anxiety because of the pandemic. About the worst I can report is frustration about not being able to make plans to see my sisters for the holidays.

I loved the photo because it’s cute and clever. I think visualizing the pandemic as mud that we’re all struggling to get through is quite apt. And the depth of the mud is a good metaphor for the difficulties and challenges brought by the pandemic. The picture reminds us that that no one will be able to say how deep the mud is until we’re out of it. And even then, the depth will be relative to each of us.

But what I like best about the picture is the hope it represents. To me it shows that regardless of our size and shape, with dogged determination we can come out of the mud standing tall and strong (if a bit dirtier for the ordeal).

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona