I see friends shaking hands, saying, ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’

Louie Armstrong

“What a Wonderful World”


Well, maybe not shaking hands. Bumping elbows. Or a friendly wave. But the question has taken on new urgency, deeper meaning. “How are you?”

My good friend, the late great Bob Sullivan, used to bristle at that question. He saw it as shallow, perfunctory, insincere. “How are you?” in his mind was a profound question deserving a real answer, and he didn’t think most people wanted a real answer.

He also wasn’t a fan of social media. Too superficial, too banal. Like TV (another medium he still hadn’t fully accepted), social media was an underperforming technology, capable of so much more, failing to fulfill its potential. Which could be said about many of us, I suppose. 

But things are different now, as you may have noticed. Impossible not to notice, really. We’re using words like “isolation,” “quarantine,” and “lockdown,” which send shivers down the spine. “Social-distancing” is a kinder, gentler euphemism, and Oak Park adopted “shelter in place” which sounds positively benign, though it also sounds like “running in place,” a metaphor for expending a lot of energy to go nowhere. Bob Sullivan might have called that an apt description of our society — before this global pandemic altered (permanently?) the world we live in.

And definitely how we live in the world.

The military, during drills, has two modes: “Attention!” and “At ease,” the latter sounding almost lyrical. I suggest we look at our current predicament as “shelter at ease” instead of viewing it as “house arrest” or “limbo.”

So how are you? Are you well? Are you coping? Are you thriving in spite of circumstances? Are you down? Struggling to adjust?

I am well, thanks, so far, knock on wood, etc., etc. I feel for high school and college seniors whose last semesters have been cut short. The final semester should be a golden time of savoring, looking back, and eagerly anticipating what comes next. I feel for athletes whose encounter with a bigger stage has been canceled after years of extraordinary dedication to their sport — high school and NCAA basketball players, baseball players on the brink of making the major leagues, teams that might have won championships, even hundreds of Olympic athletes around the world. 

I feel worse for those who live paycheck to paycheck and have been furloughed or laid off, and those who will lose businesses over this. And those, in the wealthiest country on Earth, who still don’t have adequate access to affordable health care.

I worry about those who are frail and fragile and most at risk. I worry for everyone because we are all vulnerable. No one is exempt; no one’s privilege can protect them.

I feel angry about the incompetence of Trump and his administration and the Republican Senate, all of whom have just woken up, looked around and said, “Oh crap, you mean we’re actually expected to lead?” Trump spoke truth for the first time as president when he said, “I’m not responsible.”

I worry that somehow this outbreak will screw up the election, and these deadbeat grifters will escape being thrown out on their ample behinds as they so richly deserve.

But after I work through these emotions, I notice what’s happening and what’s not happening all around. 

Distractions have been reduced. Consumer society is based on distractions, exploiting our impulses, our willingness to serve our appetites. With so many businesses closed, distractions are fewer. With less hustle and bustle, noise has been reduced. We can hear ourselves think.

We’re all in, as our headline proclaimed last week, but we’re also out. Normally when I’m walking, the only people I spot are attached to dog leashes. Now whole families are out ambling, taking their time, taking it all in, going nowhere in particular. It’s like every day is the day after Thanksgiving. We’re in permanent holiday mode as the economic engine idles. Only without the afterglow of celebration. 

We have been given the gift of time. Not short-term “time off” but time with no end in sight. Time to remember or, for the first time perhaps, realize what’s important and what isn’t. Time enough maybe to think about what is unnecessary in our life and in our world. Time to imagine a whole new world. A world in which we are not reduced to bowing at the altar of capitalism and serving the 1% priestly caste.

Or as Rebecca Solnit said in her On Being interview last Sunday, “There is so much other work that love has to do in the world. … What if we can be better people in a better world? … Unpredictability is better than certainty. It creates an opening, but you have to walk through it. … We can become the storytellers rather than the person told what to do.”

In ways we cannot yet see, our current cloistering could lead to a healthier world. A global time-out. These are “The Days the Earth Stood Still,” and like that sci-fi classic, it may bring us all to our sense. We have time to think about the world we’ve created and wonder whether we can’t do better.

As my columnist colleague John Hubbuch recently said, “I’m blessed with an optimistic personal world view, and the belief that one should always be evaluating one’s life. This is an opportunity not to be wasted.”

Fear not. As Maya Angelou once told an interviewer, “Every storm runs out of rain.”

Most of us now have enough toilet paper — our security blanket — to last us the rest of our lives. Grocery stores have become our new community centers. Mostly we’re sheltering in place, but we’re reaching out to one another, holding Zoom conferences, sending emails, using our hand-held devices as actual telephones. 

And we’re asking the most profound question of our times:

How are you?   

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