Sunday, February 28, 2021

Whatever the Next Thing Is

Let me start by saying I'm glad that more and more people are getting vaccinated against COVID. My husband just got his appointment, and I was really happy for him. (I haven't been able to get mine yet, but I'm sure it will happen soon). Once enough of us are vaccinated, we'll finally be able to get back out there and try to resume our pre-COVID lives. That's certainly good news. 

But I've been thinking about what my life has been like during the pandemic. For many people, myself included, life has largely been lived on Zoom. That's where I teach my classes, mentor my students, have faculty meetings, and talk with my boss. For months, about the only places I've gone outside of my home are grocery shopping, getting gasoline for my car, and the occasional doctor's appointment.

And it occurs to me that I've lost my conversational skills. Those little social rituals we all take for granted-- like chatting with folks in line at the coffee shop, or stopping to talk with someone on the way to a class, or making small talk while waiting for the bus... a lot of us haven't done any of that in a year. In fact, I am not sure when the last time was that I just chatted with another human, for no reason other than that the two of us were in the same place, waiting for the same thing.  

I'm not sure I know how to do it anymore. And no, I'm not trying to be dramatic. Of course I know how to talk to people-- I do it for a living. But that's my point: I know how to teach an interesting class (or at least I hope I do), or be a guest on a podcast, or get interviewed by someone who is seeking my expertise as a media historian. In other words, I know how to make work-related conversation.  Casual, friendly conversation, not so much.

In fact, I find when I try to do it, it comes out all wrong.  I feel awkward, and overly self-conscious, as if I need to choose my words carefully. I don't think I'm alone in this. I've been reading some articles about how isolated many of us have become; and how ill-at-ease many of us feel about what the future holds. So, will we all be able to just transition back into whatever  life we had before the pandemic? I doubt it, given how many of us have lost someone to COVID. And even if we haven't lost someone, we've certainly lost the life we had before. And nobody is really certain what kind of life will come next.

I think about my late mother, who truly was a brilliant conversationalist. She was the kind of person who could adapt to just about any circumstance.  I have the feeling that she'd adapt to this one too. But I'm not sure I will have as easy a time. I've always felt out-of-place at social gatherings. (Nobody who knows me believes that-- they've seen me as a public speaker or an educator or heard me on the radio, and I'm very confident under those conditions; at social gatherings, however, I never seem to know what to say.)  At least before the pandemic, I got some practice making small talk. But it has certainly been a while since I've had to do it, and now, I'm worried that I won't be able to re-learn whatever conversational skills I had before.

Perhaps you share my sense of feeling out of balance, of worrying that what you have to say will get taken the wrong way by someone else, or that you'll unintentionally offend someone, or that whatever social skills you used to have are really in need of an upgrade. As someone who uses words for a living, I am sure I'll be fine at my job-- I adapted to online teaching, and I'll adapt back to being in the classroom.  But so much has changed in a year. Society is so different now. And all I can say is I hope I'll be able to make the transition to whatever the next "new normal" is.


Monday, February 15, 2021

What's My Age Again?

As many of you know, Valentine's Day was my birthday;  I turned 74. Given my family history, with so many of the women on my mother's side dying of cancer, I feel incredibly fortunate that I'm still here, and able to enjoy some birthday cake for yet another year. 

I don't know what to say about being 74. I mean, to my students, I probably seem "old," and compared to the average person who is 18, I probably am. But I don't think of myself as a "senior citizen," whatever that means. I just think of myself as Donna, living in a world where the concept of aging is being redefined.  

When I was growing up, people retired at 65, and the idea of continuing to work into your 70s (not because you had to, but because you wanted to) was still not common. At a certain point, older people were expected to be content with golfing or playing cards or watching TV-- not that there's anything wrong with any of those things. But American culture seemed to have the idea that older people didn't have much to offer after a certain point, so they might as well leave the stage and spend their time taking up a hobby.  

And while we were all taught to respect our elders, the "elderly" were not revered-- I recall how comedians made jokes about folks of a certain age who were all supposed to be senile. (Not sure you could make those kinds of jokes today.) It was youth that was worshiped, leading even some people in their 40s (especially women) to lie about their age or undergo cosmetic surgery to keep looking young. Society back then was especially hard on women who didn't "age gracefully." And to be honest, I'm not sure we're more accepting now, although these days, even men feel pressured to look youthful.

So, here I am trying to negotiate a world that says I'm too old, while acknowledging my need to continue being relevant. That's why I got my PhD when I was 64. That's why I reinvented myself as a professor. That's why I keep doing research, and why I even turned down a sabbatical: as long as I have the energy and the ability, I want to keep trying to make a difference. I can't imagine retiring. I can't imagine not being out there.

Maybe I shouldn't think that way. Maybe at my age, it's time to do a little less. But doing less has never made me happy. There are people I want to mentor, and more research I want to do; more new information I want to discover, and more new subjects I want to teach. I hope I'm still doing a good job as a professor-- you'll have to ask my students about that. And while I can't pretend I'm in my 30s, I hope I can continue to prove that someone in their 70s isn't quite over the hill yet.

For those who reached out to wish me a happy birthday, I'm grateful.  I hope to make the most of my 74th year, and perhaps a year from now, I'll be able to write a blog post to celebrate my 75th. I've had an interesting life-- a lot more so than was ever predicted for me. Many of the folks I knew growing up didn't have high hopes for me; perhaps I've exceeded some people's expectations. But I haven't exceeded my own yet, and there's still so much that needs to be done. I look forward to doing my part, this year, and for however many more years I have.           

Sunday, January 31, 2021

In Search of a Normal Life

I've always been fascinated by the history of words; from the time I was a kid, I always wondered where a word came from, how its meaning changed over the years, and when it acquired its current meaning.  Take, for example, the word "normal." These days, it generally means something that is "usual, typical, or expected." But as any student of history can tell you, what was considered normal in times past might not be considered normal today. 

For example, a century ago, health books said it was not normal for girls to participate in sports. Parents were advised that sports were normal for boys, but if girls were allowed to play, they would acquire masculine traits.  Meanwhile, it was considered normal for kids as young as twelve to work full-time in factories, even around dangerous machinery.  And it was normal for upper-class women to wear long skirts and corsets (having a slender waist was the goal), while upper-class men were expected to wear a frock coat, a vest, and a shirt with a stiff collar.

But while it's interesting to look back on how society's idea of "normal" has changed since the 1910s, let's consider what has changed since just last year.  In February 2020, few of us were thinking much about COVID-19. In my typical week, "normal" meant sitting in traffic as I drove to my teaching job at Lesley University (about twenty-five minutes from where I live). It meant hanging with students who wanted to talk, taking them out for ice cream (or cookies), attending faculty meetings, and sometimes going over to a nearby library to do some research for an article I was working on (I have always done a lot of free-lance writing). 

A year ago, I never thought anyone except my husband would see my messy home office, and that was okay: as a media historian, I have lots of reference materials, old magazines and books and other rare memorabilia; and while I know where most things are, I'm sure my filing system would look a bit chaotic to a stranger. But now, my home office is where I teach my classes. I've  organized it as best I can (even installed a Baby Yoda to be in the shot when I Zoom or Skype), but I am sure Room Rater would give me a 2 or 3, rather than a 10. Still, it's normal for me these days to teach online and try my best to educate (and entertain) students, many of whom I've never met in person.

I'm still not sure how to define "normal" in February 2021, but some people seem to have found a way. For example, whether you like our new president or not, he seems kind of normal to me--and I mean that in an old-school way: he doesn't call people names or Tweet angry messages day and night; he goes to church once a week, he likes bagels, he likes ice cream, he enjoys playing with his dogs or spending time with his wife. In other words, he has a predictable and low-key routine-- even if he's now doing it all from the White House rather than from his home in Delaware. 

I too have tried to create a predictable and normal routine, but things still feel very much out of place. I miss giving people hugs. I miss visiting old friends and taking them out to lunch. I miss going to a movie or seeing a play. I'm glad I can Zoom or Skype with people (I gave a talk several weeks ago to students and professors in Karachi, Pakistan, which was a lot of fun), and I'm glad I can reach out to friends and colleagues on social media. I'm encouraged that slowly, people are getting the COVID vaccine. But somehow none of this feels "normal," even after almost a year. You'd think I'd be accustomed to it by now. After all, I'm often told this is the "new normal." Of course, I'm happy to be alive to see it. I know things change, and I know I can adapt to those changes. But frankly, I still miss the old normal. And I don't think I'm alone in that.       

 

Friday, January 15, 2021

"What Does Democracy Mean to You?"

My maternal grandfather came to America in 1910. He was from Lithuania, and by most accounts, things were not very good for the Jews there. So, he came to a country where there was supposed to be more opportunity, more freedom. And he carved out a life that was better than what he would have had if he'd stayed in the Old Country. He never got rich: he was a tailor, and he lacked the kind of education one needed to move up. But he was hopeful that his children would do better than he had done.  That was typical of the immigrant experience: immigrants who came here hoped they could build a better life for their kids.

What made me think of my grandfather was a video I saw earlier today, from retired Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman. He spoke of how his father brought him and his brother here from Russia, in search of that better life, with more opportunity and more freedom. And he spoke of how much he loves this country even now, despite the turmoil, violence, and chaos we've seen over the past few weeks. Even though he was forced to leave the military, through no fault of his own, he remains hopeful: he is finishing up his PhD, while serving as a board member at the Renew Democracy Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit organization whose mission is "dedicated to empowering the public to uphold constitutional principles in their civic behavior.

I admit I wasn't familiar with RDI, but I began seeing a number of short videos on Twitter today from some well-known people in media, politics, and entertainment, all taking what Lt. Colonel Vindman referred to as the "Renew Democracy challenge."  In a Twitter post, he wrote, "During a dark time, we need to showcase the best of our democracy. Share a short video about what democracy means to you & nominate three friends to do the same!"  I watched some of the videos, and while I decided not to make one myself, I thought the question was worth answering.

To me, democracy means my life is not subject to the whim of one man or one political party or one ideology.  As someone who likes to think for myself, I don't want to be told what to think or who to vote for. Thus, I don't want to live in a country run by an all-powerful, autocratic ruler who cannot be replaced, and whom everyone is forced to obey.

To me, democracy means acceptance:  even though I am a member of a minority religion, I am free to observe and celebrate my faith, with no fear that the government will ban my beliefs (nor imprison me for the way I worship).  Similarly, even though I may disagree with my political leaders, I am free to express those views, including on this blog. The First Amendment promises freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and many other rights that folks in some other countries don't have. I value those rights. I don't take them for granted. And I would hate to lose them.     

To me, democracy means that even in the worst of times, people can build coalitions and work together to make positive change. Yes, we are going through a difficult and contentious period of time, and some people want to overthrow our government or do harm to those they disagree with. But I refuse to give in to despair, even though the events of the past week have horrified me. I know not everyone agrees with the folks who attacked the Capitol; I know not everyone sees violence or hatred as the answer. In fact, there are millions of us are willing to put our differences aside, to try to move this country forward.

So, there you are.  I invite you to consider what democracy means to you, and I'd be eager to hear what you have to say.  Now more than ever, we need to remember how important democracy is, and we need to teach our kids why it matters. Lt. Colonel Vindman is right: it's a good time to defend the democratic ideal-- not with violence or threats, but with the determination that we will be part of the solution... not part of the problem.