Somewhere on the internet yesterday, I saw someone post an alleged conversation with a man. The gist of it was:
Man: I can’t stand being so hypervigilant when I take a walk. Everyone is a potential threat! It’s miserable!
Woman: Congratulations. You know what it’s like to be a woman now.
Now, you know I’m always up for dunking on men, but this didn’t sit right with me—primarily because I, too, have complained of how taking a walk feels like a nightmare obstacle course these days. Covid-19 high-alert is fundamentally dissimilar to the habitual vigilance I’ve developed as a woman. And having given this three to five minutes of deep thought, I’ll tell you why.
This time, no one can be judged safe.
Right now, walking down a city street that’s even lightly sprinkled with humanity, let alone crowded, requires intense and constant vigilance. Literally everyone is a potential threat. This is what men think women are talking about when we say we always have to be on our guard—that we walk around terrified all the time, because 50 percent of the other people out there might want to rape and/or murder us. But what we’re actually doing is scanning the environment and performing background mental calculations. Is there any reason to suspect that man over there is a threat? Almost always, the answer is “No.” We walk on, perfectly calm. It’s barely conscious.
I live down the street from a nursing and rehab facility whose residents seem to have a variety of physical and cognitive disabilities. What this means, I realized soon after moving here, is that there are often people on my block behaving unpredictably—walking with an unusual gait or at an inconsistent pace, making hand gestures in the air, speaking to no obvious interlocutor. At first, my lizard brain flagged all of these people as potential threats, because that background mental calculation is really about putting people into buckets marked “Predictable” and “I Have No Fucking Idea.” Someone walking at a steady pace, not staring at me, keeping a reasonable distance, and not making any gestures meant to attract attention, is probably no threat. I can dismiss them and move on without even realizing I’ve done the math. But behavior outside those boundaries makes my brain wake up and go looking for more information.
After several months of living near the long-term care facility, my brain no longer jolts awake and screams “What the hell?!?” when I see someone moving in an unusual manner; it just groggily opens one eye and says, “Nursing home neighbor, right?” I recognize many of those neighbors now, and when I don’t, I can usually use context clues to arrive at a reasonable conclusion, within a fraction of a second, that the person is no threat. The unpredictability itself has become predictable. But for those first few weeks, when I was hypervigilant because everything about the neighborhood was new, my brain would throw down a huge red flag every time I encountered an unpredictable neighbor. I could never fully relax into a daydream or a podcast or audiobook, whatever mental companion I’d brought for my walk, because I had to keep snapping out of it to assess threats.
And that’s what my brain is doing all the time, with literally everyone I see now.
When women say we’re constantly scanning our surroundings to make sure we’re safe, people who have never (consciously) had that experience assume we’re describing a state of unrelenting fear—but in fact, what we’re doing for most of that time is reassuring ourselves. Yep, that guy seems fine. Yep, this street is plenty well lit. Yep, there’s a crowd over there I could run and join, if I had to. Yep, there are businesses still open on this block. Etc., etc. We’re actually sending ourselves repeated messages that there’s almost certainly nothing to worry about. It’s an extra mental burden we shouldn’t have to shoulder—especially because half the reason we do it is to reassure ourselves we aren’t accidentally inviting an attack, by the standards of some imagined investigator or defense attorney—but it’s not actually constant fear.
The problem with city walking in the time of Covid-19 is that, when our brains wake up and go looking for more information, the answer is never, “It’s fine, you can relax.” The answer is always, “Danger! Maintain six feet of distance!” So you go to the farthest possible side of the sidewalk, or right into the street if you can, only to be confronted by another walking red flag, who makes you cross the street, but then you need to stay six feet away from a person coming by on a bike, and then you look up to where you’re headed and see three or four people having a chat at the edge of a lawn, and you wonder if they’re all isolating together or just flagrantly ignoring the warnings, so you plot another route in your head, but you find that’s also full of people, and there are still cars that might kill you every time you step into the street, so finally you just turn around to head home, defeated, and then suddenly a jogger is on top of you, passing so close he disrupts your personal airspace, and now you feel actually homicidal because every human being has become a cartoon cloud of teeming disease, and you obviously just caught your death from that asshole who couldn’t be bothered to give you a wide berth.
So, yeah, going for a walk is actually exhausting. It’s not fun. You’re not crazy. And it’s nothing like being a woman in the before times.
Today is our first really, really nice day in Chicago in a long time. I haven’t been out yet. I’m afraid of what I will find—not just more cartoon clouds, but all new depths of rage toward my fellow sufferers, toward anyone who isn’t taking exactly the same level of precaution I’ve deemed sensible, based on egregiously limited information. I’m afraid that this virus is going to make me mean and small, and that those feelings won’t go away even after there’s a vaccine.
Last night, a friend texted that she was sitting in a grocery store parking lot, crying in her car. Because of all the people. Not bad people, not even rude people, just other human beings trying to buy food for their families, any one of whom might be the reason that you or someone you love dies alone in a crowded, under-resourced hospital. Have a nice day.
My nephew works in a grocery store. So many people have to work in grocery stores.
I keep seeing that meme with three circles: fear, learning, and growth. Good people, kindhearted people, people who want to get an A+ in pandemic coping, are supposed to strive for the “growth” circle, which includes goals like, “I live in the present and focus on the future,” and “I keep myself emotionally happy and transmit hope.” All I can think of every time I see it is George Saunders’s story “Pastoralia,” in which faceless managers communicate by fax with people who live in a human diorama at some dystopian future amusement park.
“I have to admit, I’m not feeling my best,” says the narrator—one half of a “cave people” exhibit, in the story’s opening line. It’s been thirteen days since any park guest has come by, and his food supply (whole goats left in the night, along with matches) is suddenly inconsistent. “Not that I’m doing so bad. Not that I really have anything to complain about. Not that I would actually verbally complain if I did have something to complain about. No. Because I’m Thinking Positive/Saying Positive.”
Later, after it becomes clear that layoffs are happening—and you can imagine the economic situation that led people to take jobs like “human diorama” in the first place—the faceless management company sends a memo:
And in terms of mass firings, relax, none are forthcoming, truly, and furthermore, if they were, what you’d want to ask yourself is: Am I Thinking Positive/Saying Positive? Am I giving it all I’ve got? Am I doing even the slightest thing wrong? But not to worry. Those of you who have no need to be worried should not in the least be worried.
That’s what I hear in my head when I look at that “Growth” circle. Going for a walk on a beautiful day is currently fraught with the fear of actual death, but I can’t dwell on that. Because I’m Thinking Positive/Saying Positive.
(I just started to reread “Pastoralia” in its entirety, and I had to stop, because I can’t handle vicious satire about the creeping horror of end-stage capitalism right now. Go figure. Twenty years ago, it was one of the funniest stories I’d ever read.)
Here’s what I know: anyone who claims not to have at least one foot wedged permanently in the “fear” circle is lying.
I also know this: It’s beautiful outside, and I’m going to go for a walk.