Here’s when I knew 2020 had stripped me of my hard-won social skills: In October, while at a wedding and mingling with strangers — never my strong suit in the best of times — I walked up to someone and said “Diane.”
That’s it, just my name. Diane.
Taking stock during these end-days of the pandemic, I find I’ve lost more than just the ability to make small talk.
This incident represents a major bit of backsliding for me, who, back in the day, was one of the world’s most awkward teenagers. Surly, spotty, snotty — like many humans at that age. But for a couple of weird years, I was epically shy and virtually friendless. Let’s just say it was not at all a given I would become a sociable-seeming adult. One who would remember to tack on a “Hi, I’m…” before blurting out her name.
Taking stock during these end-days of the pandemic, I find I’ve lost more than just the ability to make small talk. But I gained a few skills, too. Here, my own personal pandemic P&L:
Although I’m a lifelong writer and editor, I’ve always been flummoxed by crosswords. Last summer, I watched while my niece, Frankie, sailed through The New York Times Sunday puzzle, decoding baffling clues like “Brown.ender” (answer: edu) and “They called her Happy Bottom” (Gladys). Turns out, like any other tribe, crossword constructors and solvers have a language all their own, both for clues, which are mostly puns by the way, and for their daily discourse, aired on the Wordplay blog and totaling 300-plus comments about every single puzzle. There’s the @Meanoldlady who objects to “clue-y” clues for extremely common fill-ins like “Oreo” and “Loeb” (as in, Lisa of “Stay” fame, who has been clued a lot lately). @Mean posts so often that the blog’s wordy, nerdy and unfailingly gentle community worries when she doesn’t chime in on any given day. Despite my shyness, I plan to post one day soon. Look for me under the username — you guessed it — @Diane.
Pre-pandemic: Every damn week, I would stare at the Cartoon Caption Contest on the back page of The New Yorker, racking my brain for a clever, or at least relevant, caption to fill in. The cartoon couple floating on a lake when they notice a grizzly swimming over to join them? The illustration of a lady sitting at a desk sorting through a stack of RSVP cards, all of which have the “will not attend” box checked? Those Martians roasting something over an open fire on a subway platform?
Literally, nothing would ever occur to me, funny or unfunny.
Now: All of that has changed since I found myself with 10 months of unspoken-for time on my hands. Suddenly, I was coming up with hilarious* captions and submitting them to the contest, following all of its surprisingly complicated rules.
The floating man might be saying to his pal, warningly, “Bear with us.”
That erstwhile party-thrower might be lamenting, wistfully, “Regrets, I’ve had a few.”
As for the Martians and their BBQ? Come on now, you’re no busier than I am! That one’s on you!
Doing Nothing at All
I am a planner, an organizer, a list-maker, a person who really, really loved the one-time UPS tagline “We Love Logistics.” So is my sister Susie, mother of puzzle-solving Frankie, and nothing gets us going like making plans that involve dropping people off at various locations where random items (library books, baked goods) need to be exchanged — ideally on a tight schedule. A niche passion to be sure, but one that came in handy when in the pre-cellphone 90s, we shared one babysitter for four children attending three separate schools and living in two different apartments. Tuesdays were especially complex.
Kids grown, working from home, alone most of the day, I‘ve found I have nothing to organize. I make to-do lists with notations like “read @MeanOldLady comments” and “figure out Martian caption.” And I’ve learned to be OK with it, really. (But if, for whatever reason, you need brownies delivered crosstown to a soon-to-be-off-duty doorman, I’m here for you!)
“Wine: It’s Not Just for Weekends Anymore!”
I would call my one-time yoga practice “dutiful.” I felt smug after class, having watched my unwanted thoughts “float down the river”— the one that’s so often evoked in classes — even on those days when it wasn’t especially “available to me” (another yoga-class circumlocution). Then the pandemic happened and I just … couldn’t. Maybe I need the yoga-studio environment with the teacher and her river. Or maybe I need someone to be smug in front of as I walk home toting my yoga mat, hips fully open and mindful AF, on a logistically complex Tuesday.
My first day of quarantine coincided with St. Patrick’s Day. Drinking occurred. Perhaps not all that surprising, but then drinking occurred (note blameless use of passive tense) on every single evening** for months and months after that. Pre-pandemic, I looked forward to Fridays, when the abstemious workweek came to an end and I could spend time with my friends Kim Crawford and Kendall Jackson, no social distancing required. Now, if I were asked to write a bit of branded content*** for wine, it would be “Wine: It’s Not Just for Weekends Anymore!”
Will I regain those things lost and retain what I’ve gained when we all reintegrate? Only time will tell. But just to be safe, if you see me coming toward you at a wedding, just go ahead and introduce yourself first, OK?
*As yet, The New Yorker appears not to agree.
**Greenwich Mean Time
***I am a branded-content strategist.