I’ve never kept a diary or a journal. There are times I wish I had, as when I was writing my book. Details of conversations and feelings, recorded in real time, might have enriched the narratives of cases and decision-making I describe. A bit more verisimilitude I would have liked. We have a tendency to forget, especially, how fearful, uncertain, or worried we were as events unfolded.
It occurs to me, though, that I do have a journal of sorts. It’s these notes. They are, to be sure, intermittent and public, but from time to time I set down personal thoughts about my reaction to the world around me. And looking back on those reflections months or years later is illuminating.
What’s on my mind lately is our collective emergence from the long pandemic lockdown. I’m rejoicing, like everyone else. But I also find it jarring. There is occasionally a cognitive dissonance between how we have been conditioned for 15 months and what now makes scientific sense. I went back to the CAFE note I wrote back on March 12, 2020, when the country seemed to shut down overnight. I wrote about the jolts to our daily lives:
“What has struck me this past week is that one’s degree of worry and alarm is very much affected not necessarily by medical pronouncements, but by proximity to the outbreak, by personal disruptions, and by jarring changes to regular life. Many of you may recognize the feeling, of being jolted in your own home, again and again.
I’ll share some of the ways I’ve been jolted. Feel free to share back some of your own.
On Sunday night, our boys’ high school suddenly shut down.
On Tuesday, our daughter’s college announced it was closing, not temporarily but permanently for the rest of the academic year. Though there will be remote learning, every single student has to clear out for good this weekend. That’s quite a jolt to a college freshman.
Also on Tuesday, NYU Law School, where I teach, announced there would be no more in-person teaching for the time being. By today, hundreds of other universities have done the same. Now I have to figure out how to use Zoom to instruct my students going forward.
My family lives a stone’s throw from New Rochelle, now famously associated with coronavirus. Yesterday the national guard was ordered to the area to assist with containment. Jolt.
This week the company that puts out our podcast and this newsletter and all CAFE content instructed all employees to work from home. Anne and I have obtained microphones and are developing a method to efficiently produce the Insider podcast remotely.
Every speech and event for which I was scheduled between now and mid-May has been canceled.
People who are typically measured have been messaging me with increasing alarm.
I haven’t engaged in a handshake with anyone in over a week. At first that was quite awkward; now it’s mundane.”
I paused on that last paragraph. Fifteen months after writing those words, the jolt I felt recently was while dining outside at a Manhattan restaurant and a friend walked by who immediately extended his hand in that ancient ritual of greeting that some had pronounced dead forever. We were both vaccinated, and so I shook his hand. Vigorously. The handshake is back, at least in these parts. At my son’s pre-Prom party recently, everyone was shaking hands. We revert fairly quickly, it turns out. In fact, I shook so many hands recently that whatever forearm tendon is engaged in the act of a firm handshake got a little sore. Who knew that such a thing could atrophy? Or maybe I’ve forgotten the proper way to shake a hand.
The reopening has been gradual in many ways, of course. But this month it has felt sudden. It has felt like the happy reversal of the great contraction of March 2020. Instead of rescuing our daughter from college, we were returning her to campus for a research fellowship. My middle child graduates from high school this evening, at an in-person ceremony.
One Tuesday this month, in the space of an hour, I was invited to two indoor social events. What?! I went to the movies, with my son, for the first time in forever. My gym no longer requires masks if you’re vaccinated. Last week I received my first in-person speech invitation since the pandemic began. People are optimistic about public gatherings again.
Out of the blue, after the Manhattan theater district had been shuttered for an eternity, Bruce Springsteen announced that he was returning to Broadway. That was a jolt, of electricity. (Yes, I scored tickets, and the anticipation is killing me.)
I attended my first indoor event last week, Elie Honig’s book launch party in the West Village in Manhattan. There was food and drink and camaraderie and jokes. Virtually the entire CAFE team made it, some of whom had never met each other in the flesh before. There were handshakes and hugs and smiles. It felt special. I suspect that before long I will get accustomed to basic pleasures like gathering with friends without fear of super-spreading a deadly virus. But not yet. These moments of return to normalcy don’t seem normal, yet. They feel like forgotten luxuries, to be savored.
My hope is that a year from now I will look back at this week’s note – after 12 months of pre-pandemic-style socializing, after getting back to the usual work commute and grind, after four seasons of family get-togethers – and that I will take a moment to reflect on how all of this felt, and remember not to take any of it for granted.