When we speak of the end of the pandemic, we tend to imagine it as a “return to normal.” And by “normal,” we mean we will slip back into the blithe ways of being we once took for granted: We will slouch into movie theater seats, invite co-workers over for dinner, hug our parents and shout to be heard in loud bars. Much as we crave that familiar safety and ease, though, many of the habits that we acquired over the past year — some in the service of survival, some in the name of comfort, others in simple pursuit of pleasure — will remain with us. These are the things we’ll keep, not because the pandemic forced them on us but because they are improvements on our pre-pandemic ways. — Jacob Brogan
Wearing masks when we’re sick
By Daniela Lamas
Like many doctors, I was uncertain about the benefit of masks at the start of the pandemic. But as the data began to accumulate, so too did the masks in my home. Now, a year after this pandemic began, there are masks everywhere — on door handles and in drawers, at the bottom of my bag and in the pockets of my jackets. I’ll be excited, eventually, to live without them — to read facial expressions again, sense the wind on my lips and feel that particular freedom that comes from being able to enter a room without covering my face.
And yet. We now know that these politicized little pieces of material actually save lives — including other people’s. Cases of the flu and other respiratory illnesses are at a striking low this year, and while that is probably a result of multiple factors, including physical distancing and hand hygiene, wearing masks is undoubtedly one component.
Which is why I am going to continue to wear a mask in my daily life to protect others, long after this pandemic is over. Not all the time. Definitely not in open, outdoor areas. But in many offices in America, coming to work sick was expected, even a norm. Now, if I have a cough or a cold and am entering a crowded indoor area, like a movie theater or a mall or an airplane, or coming to work at the hospital, I will make sure to put on that mask. If we have learned anything from this past year, it is the extent to which we are all interconnected. So I will keep those masks around. I will see them not just as a reminder of this devastating pandemic but also as a promise that we can be better.
Daniela Lamas is a pulmonary and critical-care doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. @danielalamasmd
By Diep Tran
I used to see about 150 live theater performances a year. When Broadway shut down on March 12, 2020, it felt like the curtain had closed on an important part of my life. And not just mine: Overnight, the entire performing arts industry shuttered; nationwide, around 1.4 million people lost their jobs.
Then the theater community did something astonishing: It went digital. Michael Urie performed the one-man show “Buyer & Cellar” in his living room; Oscar Isaac pretended to spank Marisa Tomei in a Zoom live reading of “Beirut.” Eventually, original productions started popping up, such as “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical,” a creation that I’m still convinced was a fever dream, and “Circle Jerk,” which had me cackling alone in my room as the cast pilloried Internet meme culture. These projects showed that you don’t need high production values to make great theater — just committed performers and a riveting script. It was theater at its very essence.
Theater has always been restricted by place. But now that even “Hamilton” has a streamable version, you no longer have to be in the room where it happens. Theater companies, large and small, have been investing in camera equipment; D.C.-based Woolly Mammoth, for example, is staging an entire virtual season.
When in-person performances come back, $200 and a plane ticket should not, once again, become the prerequisite for seeing a Broadway show. The theater world should retain its pandemic strategies for making its work affordable and accessible, no matter the viewer’s location or economic bracket. Let’s retire the shaky bootlegs: Give us the show in HD, and we’ll live-tweet the hell out of it.
By Maura Judkis
Before the pandemic, pants were sorted by fabric, function and fit. There were so many types: wool trousers, corduroys, chinos, leggings, jeggings, sweatpants, yoga pants and, inevitably, jeans with their many subcategories: skinny, boyfriend, distressed. But the pandemic has pared all that taxonomic specificity away, leaving us with only two kinds: Hard and Soft.
Soft Pants are often terry-cloth- or Lycra-based, and they always have elastic or drawstring waistbands. Hard Pants are any pants that have buttons, zippers, or itchy or unstretchy fabric. Soft Pants are a gentle embrace of the calves. Hard Pants are leg prisons.
I used to be a person who wore pencil skirts and sheath dresses and all sorts of beautiful, uncomfortable things. A person who believed Karl Lagerfeld when he famously called sweatpants “a sign of defeat.” But when we began working from home, I quickly became a person who owned “nice” sweatpants (cool, tailored joggers for outdoor socially distanced hangs) and “house” sweatpants (old ones with pilled fabric that gave me pancake butt). I wore workout leggings and did not work out.
Newly able to sit cross-legged in my desk chair or strike a yoga pose between calls — you can’t do that in a pencil skirt — I found that the words flowed more easily. Minor discomforts, like a too-tight waistband or a seam that digs, emit a constant low hum in your brain. When you eliminate them, you free up that space for more important things. Wearing Soft Pants, you don’t think about how your clothing feels at all.
Choosing Soft Pants does not necessarily mean rejecting fashion. We can have it both ways: clothes that make us look good and conform to business-casual office attire norms, but still feel comfortable. We can’t all wear elegant three-piece Louis Vuitton pajama ensembles, as actor Daniel Kaluuya did for the virtual Screen Actors Guild Awards. But maybe we’ll be more creative and productive in sweatshirt suit jackets and terry cloth joggers, leggings and stylish, shapeless sack dresses. Let all fabrics be stretchy, all waistbands elastic. Let our Soft Pants make our minds sharp.
Maura Judkis is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s Style section. @MauraJudkis
Watching live television
By Jacob Brogan
Like many of my fellow millennials, I learned to watch television in my own way and in my own time: I programmed the VCR to record “X-Files” episodes on Friday nights as a teen. I mainlined whole seasons of “Sex and the City” on DVD in college. I ravenously consumed Food Network shows on Hulu as I cooked in my 20s and 30s. When I watched something while it was airing — as I did for the two great TV bloodbaths of the 21st century, “Game of Thrones” and “The Bachelor” — it was typically because I had to write about it for work in the hours just after.
That changed almost immediately in the early months of the pandemic. Despite the array of streaming services on our television’s home screen, my girlfriend and I found ourselves scouring the broadcast listings for something, anything, to fill our evenings. Hungry for events that might interrupt the monotony of our days, we tuned into award shows that we would have otherwise read about afterward, and athletic competitions that we would have mostly ignored. Even the worst programs — most notably, the baffling dating show/singing competition “Listen to Your Heart” — brought a rhythm to our weeks, reminding us that time was passing, however tediously.
The real appeal of live television during the pandemic was the tenuous sense that we were doing something that other people were doing, too. Sometimes we would text along with friends — happy to know that we needn’t fear spoilers, since they were watching with us — and sometimes we’d simply scroll through Twitter together, observing as the discourse took shape. “Television, in its liveness, its immediacy, its reality, can create families where none exist,” wrote the media theorist Jane Feuer. She worried that this togetherness was illusory, a pernicious tool of corporate power. If so, it is an illusion I have come to treasure despite myself, and one that I will continue to embrace, happy as I am to remember that we share our world with others, strangers and kin alike.
Jacob Brogan is an assistant editor with Outlook at The Washington Post. @jacob_brogan
Spending time with pets
By Lara Bazelon
The pandemic has created a pet boom. People who had never considered sharing space with a four-legged creature now speak in the awed tones of religious converts. Puppies are suddenly everywhere: bounding joyfully up the street, standing on their hind legs for a treat at the local coffee shop, and happily chewing through unused yoga mats and low-hanging rolls of toilet paper. Some of the humans on the other end of the leash for the first time are people who professed to hate animals. Yes, I plead guilty.
Like so many of us who worked from home during the pandemic, I am excited to return to my office with the promise of busy, buzzing days with students and colleagues popping in and out. Yet I haven’t missed that daily interaction as much as I feared I would. Kittle, my mop-haired bichon poodle, is a constant companion. In my covid office, a.k.a. my bedroom, he is ever present, looking up at me soulfully from the nest he has made in the pillows. Peering at other people over Zoom, I see their pets, too: napping on the couch, asleep in their laps, walking across the computer screen, tails wagging in a friendly hello.
These furry friends have comforted us during the endless, frightening and uncertain days. They have also humanized us. It’s hard to yell at opposing counsel when a labradoodle is licking his face. And that’s a good thing. So hello, three-dimensional people, and a fond farewell to your pets Gimli, Pepper, Hank, Sparrow and Beebs. I will miss you.
I won’t be saying goodbye to Kittle, though. Come the fall, he will be making regular trips to the office. I can’t imagine life — or work — without him.
Lara Bazelon, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, is the author of “A Good Mother,” a novel that will be published in May. @larabazelon
Online ordering at in-person restaurants
By Tim Carman
Quick response, or QR, codes have gone from fad to survival tool during the pandemic. They’ve allowed restaurant customers to scan little black-and-white boxes with their phones and call up menus, cocktail lists and specials, all without anxious exchanges between diner and server. These innovations have been a matter of safety, even if they generally go against the ethos of a hospitality industry built on customer interactions. But there are a number of reasons restaurants would benefit from hanging on to those contactless menus and checkout systems.
QR codes can allow diners to pay their bills at the table, a process that eliminates the traditional three-step dance: The server presents the check, returns to pick up your credit card and then brings the receipt for you to sign. It’s a lot of legwork for the server and can turn into a “Waiting for Godot” scene for diners. A QR code checkout would let diners leave the restaurant faster, which in turn would let owners turn over tables quicker.
There are more benefits, too: QR codes save paper. They cut down on duplicate credit card receipts. They allow chefs and sommeliers to update menus without felling more trees. QR codes would also reduce credit card fraud, which is a risk every time you hand over plastic to a stranger.
Perhaps you don’t want your phone to be such an intimate part of your dinner out? I get that. The device already intrudes on too much of our lives. But used once at the beginning, and then the end, of your meal, your phone could become an important piece of the 21st-century dining experience.
Tim Carman is a food reporter at The Washington Post. @timcarman
Appreciating essential workers
By Benjamin Lorr
Back when the pandemic began, and all of reality felt up for grabs, at least one thing seemed clear: Many people could be “patriotic” by staying home and locking themselves up — and others had to actually go out and do things.
Yes, this meant nurses and doctors. Praise them with pots and pans at 7 p.m.! But a new class of “essential worker” emerged, too: our grocers, pharmacists and transit workers; truck drivers, warehouse workers, delivery women. Those for whom the pandemic was not a pause, nor a frenzy, but business as usual. Even the most basic American lifestyle relies on them: a largely invisible collection of behind-the-scenes workers, not glamorous enough for an Instagram marketing campaign nor yet worthy of a livable minimum wage.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel declared that the appropriate response to a miracle is embarrassment. And oh boy, it should have been. While many of us were busy planning trips to the grocery like they required military precision — or when a neighbor confided that he was holding his breath while passing strangers on the street — these workers were still there, protecting the miracle of the supply chain. Dropping packages at doors. Stocking produce on the shelves. Ringing the register in front of stranger after stranger, with no way to hold their breath through it all.
It didn’t take long to move from “essential worker” to “hero.” And while it seems kind of definitional that heroes opt into their heroics — as opposed to being conscripted by economic necessity — we can leave learning the distinction between heroism and extortion for a 2021 goal. Right now, I’m just glad for awareness. May we keep an understanding of how much we depend on these workers, and someday soon, may that awareness grow into Heschel’s embarrassment: bringing them higher wages, basic benefits and a status equal to all they deliver.
Benjamin Lorr is the author of “The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket.” @benjaminlorr
Spending time outdoors
By Dana Milbank
This pandemic has been for the birds.
Shortly after the world shut down in March 2020, I was gardening in the backyard when I heard a loud flapping sound above. A helicopter? No, the invader was a wild turkey, and it had landed, awkwardly, in my American elm tree. City-dweller that I am, I hadn’t known turkeys could fly that high. With human activity at a standstill, nature was reclaiming the capital in magical ways.
This lost year has been miserable: half a million dead, millions out of work, and countless more feeling isolated and depressed. Count me among the last group. But I’m grateful that the confinement forced me to rediscover nature. Research shows that time spent outdoors reduces stress and improves concentration, but my rationale was less noble: I had nowhere else to go.
In the (touch and go) effort to keep sane, I’ve walked 765 miles, my AllTrails app tells me, through local parks; I use another app, LeafSnap, to identify plants. (A Japanese photinia? Wait, no, a Chinese photinia!) I’ve climbed Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park, hiked the Appalachian Trail in West Virginia, cycled on the C&O Canal in Maryland and paddled alongside dolphins off Delaware’s Cape Henlopen.
In winters before the pandemic, I enjoyed the great outdoors primarily through windows. This time I pulled on wool socks and YakTrax and crunched through mud and ice. Kayaking on the Anacostia River in late February, I came upon a bald eagle taking a bath near the New York Avenue Bridge. A few weeks later, I found a great blue heron fishing in the shadow of RFK Stadium. And just a few days ago, downriver in Anacostia Park: a whole flock of wild turkeys. Without thinking, I gave them a friendly wave. These are my pandemic pals.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post opinion columnist covering national politics. @milbank
By Benjamin Storey and Jenna Storey
According to the philosopher Blaise Pascal, “Our unhappiness arises from one thing alone — that we cannot remain quietly in our rooms.” Terrified by the prospect of boredom, we work to make the most of every minute.
When the shutdown first hit, our nerves twitched restlessly in the absence of our usual occupations — schlepping the kids, scheduling meetings, squeezing in a few minutes at the gym. So we redeployed our spreadsheets to track toilet paper shipments and strategized about evading the banana rationing. Then, having armed ourselves with an embarrassing excess of supplies, we faced hours we could not instrumentalize.
So we lived with boredom. As it settled in, we started to notice things — odd neighbors, old friends we rediscovered online, books we’d loved but largely forgotten. We sprawled on the floor with our children, following the questions that wander through young minds: What happens if you sneeze in a submarine? Do beans have souls?
Such childlike questioning, untethered to time, contains a lesson. Children can be maddeningly indifferent to the clock — folding their socks can take them five minutes or five hours. They delight in time, precisely because they do not mind it. The shutdown taught us that boredom is the narrow portal through which we must pass to become present in the moment, as children are. And that such presence brings happiness.
Ironically, the shutdown produced innovations — like remote work even on “snow days,” formerly a gift of unplanned time — that make disconnecting from the press of obligations all the harder. So, unless we remember the hidden benefits that boredom brings, our liberation from quarantine will trap us ever more tightly in the joyless empire of busyness.
Benjamin Storey and Jenna Storey are the authors of “Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment.”
By Sam Schwartz
I grew up in the 1950s watching Disney cartoons. Years later, after driving a New York taxicab and then working as a New York City traffic engineer, a familiar image kept coming up from one of those cartoons: “Motor Mania,” wherein the Goofy character, under the alias Mr. Walker, begins his day as a genteel suburbanite heading downtown. But when he gets behind the wheel, his fangs come out and he morphs into Mr. Wheeler — a road-rage-driven monster. As soon as he gets out of his car, he’s Mr. Nice Guy again. Sound familiar?
With any luck, post-pandemic life will mean that more of us will continue working from home, leaving more of us as Walkers — not harried, angry Wheelers.
Road rage didn’t go away during the pandemic (and sadly the rate per mile driven of traffic fatalities jumped by 20 percent). But for those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home, mostly, we didn’t encounter it. I’m sure that, like me, a lot of us have been relieved to skip the daily battle on our streets and highways, time spent getting to jobs that can easily, thankfully be done from the comfort of home.
So, before we reflexively return to rush hours, gridlock and jousting with less-than-competent drivers, let’s savor (and maybe keep) what may be these last few weeks as Mr. or Ms. Walker before going back to being twice-daily Mr. or Ms. Wheelers.
“Gridlock Sam” Schwartz is a former New York City traffic commissioner and the author of “No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future.” @GridlockSam
Better home cooking
By Carolina Gelen
As someone working in food media, I noticed a surge in demand for content during the pandemic. Some people struggled to find any pleasure in putting food on the table. For others, staying at home clearly helped them discover a new passion.
So many people were drawn to cooking — and experimenting — in their kitchens. Sometimes this was out of necessity: They’d panic-bought some random ingredients during a quick grocery run and now had to improvise. Other times, people cooked to feel connected, taking online workshops to meet fellow enthusiasts and to chat with their favorite chefs. They saw a viral food trend on Instagram or TikTok, so they joined in making hot-chocolate bombs and baked feta pasta. They missed a dessert from their favorite restaurant, so they had to re-create it. People started to pick up techniques that they used to get only from professional bakeries or coffee shops: mastering the mysterious alchemy of feeding a sourdough starter or foaming milk for a beautifully elaborate latte.
When every day looks exactly the same as the last, paying attention to simple things — making better coffee in the morning, planning a fancy homemade dinner for you and your partner, decorating a layer cake — helps relieve the cabin fever. I hope that sense of care and adventurousness lives on, even after people feel free to dine out.
Carolina Gelen is a recipe developer and Food52 resident. Instagram: @carolinagelen