nesting dolls wearing facemasks

Dear Readers,

First, let me apologize to you for not having posted in so long. What with one thing and another, my alter ego in the real word became preoccupied. But the pandemic has vastly increased her free time: once she has decontaminated the day’s deliveries, Zoomed for an hour or two, walked the dog, done a little reading and writing, sent off a few irate messages to our elected (who knows how, as Gerard Manley Hopkins would say) officials, and beaten back despair and other existential stuff with carbs and Netflix, there’s really nothing left to do except cleaning and giving advice. So here I am; and, happily, my re-emergence has coincided with a flurry of novel-coronavirus questions. Ahem!

—Love, June


I.

a woman typing furiously wearing a facemask

Dear June,

I live with my sister. She is constantly reminding me how grateful we should be because we are safe and solvent, have a roof over our heads, etc. She has always been like this, but now that we are stuck at home because of the coronavirus she is going into high gear with the gratitude.

I like to think that I am as appreciative as the next person, but right now I am feeling scared and restless and claustrophobic. I miss my friends, I get frustrated working from home because I suck at tech, I am worried about the future, and I miss my boyfriend, who is back in his hometown for the duration. But I can’t talk about any of this to her, or even really show it, because it sets off her whole gratefulness thing. I am losing my shit. Do you have any advice for me? Do you think that I am a spoiled First World person? Should I confront my sister? 

Whiny Ingrate

Dear Not-So-Whiny Friend,

Although you, like me, are comparatively lucky in many ways as we face this pandemic, you don’t strike me as especially spoiled. The issue doesn’t come down to being spoiled and self- absorbed on the one hand or being actively, vocally, continually grateful on the other. We all just have to get through this.

It is wonderful to feel gratitude. Although I confess that I have a hard time myself trying to summon up that old thankful feeling when it won’t come naturally, I envy people who can, or don’t have to. Counting one’s blessings and trying to have a positive attitude are both good ways to gin up one’s mental health a bit, stay calm, and sleep better. Gratitude can also be a way of gaining perspective, another thing I’m in favor of because perspective—in the sense of seeing how well off one is, relative to the way things could be—tends to make the more fortunate among us smarter and kinder and less tiresome.

But enforced or, worse, competitive gratitude is another matter entirely. I am not sure if your sister is one of them, but there are plenty of gratitude-enforcers out there who believe that we have some sort of obligation to swell with grateful joy for most of our waking hours. This is irritating, and it is none of their business. What I find especially annoying about people who try to shove gratefulness down our throats is the way they seem to hit their stride just when we have more things than usual to feel ungrateful about. Of course, we are glad that we didn’t die when our new car got totaled, that our extremely painful stomach condition is not life-threatening, that our cat lived a happy life. But we would still rather have our car, our digestion, and our cat—and few things are more enraging than people who use the language of cheerful concern when what they are really telling us is to get over ourselves and suck it up.

So it is during this during this pandemic. Those of us who are healthy, financially secure, and working from home obviously have it much better than those who are hospitalized with the virus, newly unemployed, destitute, or risking their lives at essential jobs. I am sure that you honor the essential workers and sympathize with people in trouble. But it doesn’t make you a monster if you also feel, or even say from time to time, that you would really like to go out and have a beer or get your shoes fixed or have sex or not wake up at three A.M. from nightmares about gasping out your last breath alone, in a ventilator, while armed protesters waving Confederate flags and swastikas march past your room.

Since neither of us has anywhere to go just now, let me tell you a story. I came close to losing it myself during a Zoom meeting last week where a colleague of mine, “Melanie,” almost drove another colleague to tears with her toxic positivity. As one does, we were breaking the ice by going around the room, or in this case the screen, reporting on how we were all holding up during the stay-home-orders phase of this pandemic. Most of us answered with some variant of “we’re fine, just a little-stir-crazy,” but our youngest member, a single mom named “Lara,” told us in a trembling voice that she was really having a hard time coping with a toddler and a full-time on-line job, couldn’t sleep, and was starting to doubt that her new medication would ever kick in. While the rest of us were all making soothing noises and trying to convey sympathy and understanding as best we could considering that our faces were low-resolution blobs the size of postage stamps, Melanie—whose turn it admittedly was—started telling the group how lucky we all were, brightly emphasizing the all, while looking at Lara as pointedly as one can look at one among many low-resolution blobs. For the rest of the meeting Melanie never missed an opportunity to say something about how blessed and we were, or how we should never lose sight of our privilege. I am sure I am not the only person who felt that Melanie was not just ignoring but actually rebuking poor Lara, who left the meeting early.

You are a good-enough person. Don’t let your sister get to you.

But should you confront her? I don’t see any real ethical issue here: the only question is whether confronting her would work. I would love to help you find an answer, but your letter does not tell me much about her motives, or how she responds to criticism.

I can’t tell whether, when she says that she or you or somebody else “should” be grateful, she is passing moral judgment or simply talking about relative good luck. For all I know, she may simply have a sunny personality, and most or all of her pronouncements may be sincere, if utterly counterproductive, attempts to cheer you up.

On the other hand, her expressions of gratitude may be pious, passive-aggressive dismissals of other people’s reality. Or they may be a little of both. Or they may be words she no longer really hears herself saying, knee-jerk reactions she’s picked up from a few too many inspirational articles or sermons or Hallmark Channel movies. Or she may be talking more to herself than to anyone else, trying to beat back dissatisfactions of her own.

You may not much care what her motives are; her “gratefulness thing” would be annoying no matter what the source, and I suppose the issue is not so much whether your sister means well as whether you can get her to stop. But it may be easier to rein her in—or, perhaps, to accept the inevitable– if you give them some thought.

Have you ever tried to tell her how you feel? Your asking whether you should confront her suggests not. If you don’t think she will just go on the defensive and dig in, I suggest that you make the attempt. It does not have to be in the form of a confrontation, or even a formal sit-down. You could just wait for an opening in one of your daily conversations and try to explain that sometimes her cheerfulness in the face of your worries and fears makes you feel worse for not being as happy as you “should” be. If you want to risk a possibly hostile, and almost definitely touchy-feely discussion, you could go on to explain that you sometimes feel that she is not listening to you, or even that she believes you are not entitled to your feelings—but that might be taking things too far, especially given that you are locked in the same house with her for the foreseeable future.

Good luck. And if your sister keeps up with the relentless gratefulness and good humor, take heart by thinking about the tens of thousands of us other “lucky” Americans, safe at home, who still curse the fates with some regularity these days.

You are not alone.

—June


 

three atms with customers

II.

Dear June,

If there are three ATMs in a row, and the two end ones are being used, is it okay to use the middle one at the same time?

Impatient

Dear Imp,

Unless the ATMs are each six feet apart, it is not okay. The same goes for picnic tables, urinals (or trees, or whatever else men pee against), parallel checkout lines, and everything else that is not six feet away from the next thing. I am sure that, as a fellow Earthling, you know that six feet is the current minimum for safe social distancing—and we should definitely regard this as a true minimum and aim for wider distances whenever possible, since people tend to sway, stumble, make wide turns, and forget what they are supposed to be doing.

This six-feet concept does not strike me as hard to understand. Implementing it in the face of your more oblivious or obnoxious fellow-Americans may be another matter though, as we’ll see in the next letter.

Stay safe, my impatient friend.

—June


woman wearing a welding mask in supermarket

III.

Dear June,

I was in the supermarket yesterday and the man behind me in line was clearly closer than six feet away as marked on the floor AND he was touching everything around him AND his so-called mask wasn’t covering his nose. I didn’t know how to let him know how much this bothered me without making the situation even worse by raising my voice over my mask or moving farther away and into someone else’s space ahead of me—is there a good way of letting people around you know about the guidelines without increasing the risks?

—Crowded and Tense

Dear C & T,

I agree that moving closer to the person ahead of you may make the problem worse: you will be in her space, and the person behind you is likely to move up and maintain the same unsafe distance as before. A better bet is to try to get the offender to move backwards, or at least stand still until you may safely move ahead.

I don’t know what kind of mask you have, but I have taken some walks with a friend where we both wore two-ply cloth masks and stayed six feet apart, and we did not have too much trouble keeping up a conversation—although, come to think of it, we have become much more economical and impersonal in our speech lately, with fewer confidences and almost no adverbs, now that we have to shout at each other in public spaces. But my point is that, unless you are wearing a plastic face shield, or an N-95 under a balaclava, you will be heard if you turn around and say “Six feet away, please!” to someone who is fewer than six away from you. Just be sure to enunciate clearly. It could help if, still clearly enunciating, you also said : “I might have the virus.” After all, any of us might.

If he says, “Oh, sorry,” and immediately backs up, looking sheepish, you could perhaps add a reminder about how masks work – but you and those around you should be okay if he maintains a safe distance so, if he gives any indication that he is the kind of jerk who might take offense and do something really stupid, I would hold my tongue about the mask.

If the line behind you and the offender is very long, or otherwise likely to experience some sort of domino effect if he backs up, you will have to assess the situation. If you are towards the front of the line or near a store employee, you could ask them to reposition the line, while gesturing meaningfully with your masked head toward the person behind you. Otherwise you should probably wait until the person in front of you has moved up and then, before advancing yourself, ask the offender to move up a only few feet so a safe distance can be maintained.

As for his touching everything, it sounds as if most of the damage has already been done. I would bide my time and tell Customer Service once you check out, on the off chance that somebody in authority wants to do a little extra spraying the areas the offender may have touched—although that is likely to be the whole store. This is why I hope that, since you are a careful person, you treat everything you buy AS IF somebody touched it. We all should.

Be careful out there!

—June


repeated image of empty toilet paper rolls against a yellow background

IV.

Dear June,

My fiancé and I moved in together two years ago. Bob and I have a tiny apartment, basically one sunny kitchen-living room, a small bedroom, and a smaller bathroom. The bedroom door is just a curtain, because of some zoning law about windows, and so there is really no privacy unless you’re in the bathroom.  

Until the virus hit, we didn’t have any serious problems with the small apartment or with our relationship. We have been happily talking about getting married, which we plan to do about a year from now if all goes well. We have very different careers, in different parts of the city, so our lives have been totally separate during the day. Nights and weekends we’d spend maybe a third of our waking hours at home together, and the rest of it outside the apartment – either together, on our own, or with our separate friends.  

We live in a coronavirus hot spot and have been here in the apartment together for six weeks. Our life is safe and orderly. We both work long hours from home, doing jobs we like. Once a week we lay in supplies. Every so often we walk over to a nearby park at off-peak hours for a socially-distanced walk. Thanks completely to me, we also have a Zoom movie club and weekly happy hour.

The problem is not so much that I am getting lonely and a little bit bored. That is to be expected under the circumstances. The real problem is that my fiancé just loves this life. He says he is so happy that now he gets to work every day with his back six inches from mine. That we sit down together every single night to watch Netflix or read books on the same couch. That we eat every meal together. He told me the other day that sometimes he wishes it would never end. He seems to find this idea romantic, but I find it stultifying. Last night we were sitting next to each other on the couch watching reruns and he took my hand and said; “Isn’t this lovely? This is what life will be like in 40 years, when we retire. I can hardly wait.” It was all I could do not to shudder.  

Add to this that he is starting to irritate me in all sorts of small ways. Words he overuses, ear hair, stuff like that. I am starting to look forward to work meetings because one of us has to go into the bedroom to attend them. I don’t think I could survive twenty or thirty years of retirement if it were anything like this—not with Bob, anyway. I have no idea what to do. Should I talk to Bob about this? Do you think this is a warning from God about what I have to look forward to?

Stifled

Dear Stifled,

I like to think that God would not kill some 200,000 people just to warn you about Bob, but your own inner voice may be trying to tell you something. Let’s try to decide whether to listen.

First, as to the small irritations: It is perfectly natural to feel irritated by anybody with whom you are forced into constant close contact, even someone you love very much. Although comfortable, your quarters are extremely cramped for a quarantine situation. You apparently have no in-person social contact with anybody other than Bob. The world outside is terrifying and the future is unclear. If you thought of your fiancé as adorable 24-7 under these circumstances, I would worry a little. It is of course possible that your current irritation with Bob will persist, or even increase, after we return to whatever normal we are going to return to. But there will be time enough to worry about that later; and what you’re feeling now, in these extraordinary circumstances, has very little predictive value.

As to Bob’s loving this life: I do worry, just a little, about that. But perhaps all he is saying is that he treasures you, not that he would really want the two of you to live a confined, sedentary, predictable existence from now on. He may also, like many of us, feel a certain anxiety about what happens next; at least, for the time being, he and the woman he loves are safe at home while deadly microbes, economic depression, government insanity, a changing climate, and angry ignorant people swirl around outside. (Think of Ygritte in the cave, if you watched Game of Thrones.)                                     

We have to believe that repeated lengthy stay-at-home orders will not be the norm, in which case the real question is not how happy or irritating Bob is in his present situation, but whether he proves to be just as happy and significantly less irritating when the stay-at-home orders are lifted. If he does, everything should be fine. And if he doesn’t, you will be free to move on.

As to the remark about retirement: I admit that, on first reading, Bob’s looking forward to so tedious a retirement gave me pause. But this may just be a clumsy way of saying that his job is stressing him out. Or maybe he was trying to pay you another extravagant compliment, on the order of “I’d rather be under house-arrest with you than in surfing in Cancun with anybody else,” and it came out kind of creepy. It also occurs to me that, by the time you are in your later retirement years (say 85), you too might actually like to live a quiet life with your longtime partner.

I think that your far-off and theoretical retirement is a topic you can safely, even humorously, discuss with Bob right now, both to sound him out about how he really views your distant future together, and as a metaphor for your current restlessness. Let him know that, as long as you can still get around, you plan to do so, and that you look forward to spending your golden years building latrines in developing nations, reviving your torch-singing career, running for office, and the like. If he seems receptive, add that you are also looking forward to adventures in the much nearer future.

In the meantime, feel free to speak up about specific minor irritations if you think doing so will, to borrow language from all the drug tests we hear about lately, be safe and effective. (You might ask him if, since the barbershops are all closed, he’d like you to clip those ear hairs.) But as for the overarching issue of his generally irritating you so much these days, I would definitely keep mum for now, and possibly forever. With any luck, it won’t be long until the world opens up again and you can do what you need to let off steam, which is sure to include seeing a lot more of other people and a little less of Bob. Or things will get so much worse that a few ear hairs won’t matter any more—you’ll be too busy teeming up to beat back locusts and lance boils.

I hope that you get sprung soon, and that Bob shares your joy when you do.

—June

P.S. Are you planning on having kids? In that case, Bob’s love of home and capacity for what most of us see as boredom could become a major asset. He can be the one who plays Candyland and restacks blocks over and over and, in the fullness of time, helps with the Math homework.


V.

pink teddy bear in blue face mask

Dear June,

Hi! I have two kids, five and seven. My kids were in our yard playing nicely together, when my next-door neighbor’s kid wandered over and asked to join them.  

What should they have told him? What should I tell them to tell him in the future?

 As for my neighbor, why won’t she talk to me?

Dubious Dad


Dear Dubious,

Cryptic letter, this. What did you or your kids, in fact, do when the neighbor kid came over? And has your neighbor stopped speaking to you because she is angry about whatever you or your kids did, or is she simply refusing to talk about social distancing while letting her kid traipse all over the neighborhood?

No matter. Let’s look to the future.

Here’s what you should do: call or email and explain whatever happened. Tell your neighbor that you are following the recommendations [or, depending on where you live, the legal requirements] for social distancing and aren’t having anybody over to your house for the time being. Ask her to explain this to her child. It wouldn’t hurt to say something friendly, like how sad it is that these delightful kids can’t play together until the stay-at-home order is lifted. You could even suggest that your three kids all go on line and play some age-appropriate video game.

As for your own kids, I assume that they know that there is a virus going around and that this is why they are staying home from school and not seeing grandma and so on. Make sure they also know that this distancing rule goes for EVERYBODY unless you tell them otherwise. Tell them that, if the neighbor kid comes over again, they should—very nicely—say “Sorry, we can’t play because of the virus” and immediately come back inside the house and find whatever adult is supposed to be watching them. The said adult should then call the neighbor and remind her (or her partner, if any). Tell your kids that this goes for any child who comes into the yard.

If the kid keeps coming over, keep sending him home and calling the neighbor. And for God’s sake, watch out for your own kids. At five and seven, they can’t be expected to negotiate issues of social distancing with other young children.


ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.

 

Image credits: Evgeni Tcherkasski, engin akyurt, Yunming Wang, Nathan Van de Graaf, visuals, and L N on Unsplash.

 

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