This is part of Six Months In, a Slate series reflecting on half a year of coronavirus lockdown in America.
With coronavirus cases still climbing in many states, “normal” isn’t returning anytime soon. The prospect of a vaccine arriving within a matter of months is incredibly optimistic, and even then, it will probably not fix everything. It can easily take longer than a week to get COVID-19 test results back, making tests tricky to use as a tool to safely see grandparents or travel to states with a lower case count. Many of us will be working from home well into the next year; other workers must factor the risk of illness into their lives for the foreseeable future. Millions more have lost jobs, with federal help nowhere in sight. Thanks to the government’s botched handling of the pandemic, staying socially distanced and restricting our activities to at least some degree is all we can do, for now.
The situation is miserable—but six months in, we’re more settled into the reality of life during COVID. The daily shock of our collective circumstances has mostly worn off. So in search of small reasons for optimism, we asked Slate staffers about the things they don’t hate about this new and constrained world. In a pandemic that’s taken so much, here’s what we’ve been glad to give up. —Shannon Palus
Everyone’s talking about how the pandemic heralds the end of handshakes, but hugs are the far more deserving casualty. It seems unimaginable now to expose yourself to the virus by wrapping someone outside of your quarantine bubble in an embrace, potentially thrusting your face into a cloud of the other person’s infected respiratory droplets. The truth is, hugs have always been a fraught endeavor. They require an unreasonable level of emotional intelligence, coordination, and spatial reasoning. To hug, one must first grapple with a rapid succession of difficult questions upon saying hello or goodbye to someone; answer any of them incorrectly and you might commit a hugging faux pas. Do I know this person well enough to hug? Should I start with a handshake and transition into a hug? Am I going to seem cold and distant if I don’t go in for a hug? How close do I need to get to this person? Where do I put my hands? How long should this last? Do I smell? Should I maybe just play it safe and stick with a side hug? And things become even more complicated when you add in variables like height differences. (Have you ever tried hugging a child? It’s awful.) Hugs should only be tolerated for your parents, grandparents, and significant others. I’m glad that, over the past few months, I’ve only had to wave. —Staff writer Aaron Mak
Back in the days when I put on shoes and went to an office, my lunch-making efforts were sporadic. Sometimes I’d pack leftovers or remember to throw together a sandwich. Most of the time, I’d fail to plan ahead and I’d end up paying $8 to $13 for a mishmash of food in a brown paper bowl. There were salads, grain bowls, and hummus-based mélanges of varying quality—occasionally delightful but usually somewhere between pretty good and meh. In the six months I’ve been working 5 feet from my refrigerator, I haven’t had a sad brown-bowl lunch once. Making my own lunch takes me less than 20 minutes, about the same amount of time it used to take me to walk to and from my former brown-bowl haunts. The results of my lunchtime labors are occasionally delightful but usually somewhere between pretty good and meh. In other words, I am enjoying lunch just as much (or as little) as I was before, and I’m not spending upward of $35 a week for the privilege of being too lazy to wash and chop my own kale—a financial decision that seems indefensible now that I’m no longer making it. I’ve also discovered that better-than-store-bought hummus is extremely easy to make at home. With all the money I save on my new no-brown-bowl plan, I can more than afford the good tahini. —Staff writer Christina Cauterucci
There’s a serious deficit of fun activities during the pandemic. Concert venues, museums, and public pools are closed in many places, and large social gatherings like weddings and house parties remain risky. But it turns out there’s an upside: With nothing cool to miss out on, the fear of missing out has largely evaporated. While a toned-down summer hasn’t exactly been fun, there hasn’t been much FOMO driving us to do stuff we don’t really want to do. In normal times, FOMO is always persuading me to go to loud, crowded bars with friends even when I’m tired and worn-out from the week. Back when vacations were a thing, FOMO made me feel obligated to see the local sights, even if I felt more like relaxing on a beach or watching Shark Tank reruns in a cheap motel room. FOMO has been a brutal force for much of my life, really. In eighth grade, I participated in a jalapeño-eating contest, despite my low tolerance for spicy food and distaste (at the time) for jalapeños specifically. It did not go well. Without FOMO, we can follow our own taste and focus on whatever fun is immediately available to us. For me, that means watching a lot of low-quality cooking videos on YouTube, playing trivia games with my girlfriend, and learning how to play the theme song from Cheers on piano. None of these activities is anything to brag about, but at least I’m not anxiety-spiraling about everything I could be doing instead. —Audio producer Cameron Drews
I’m a chronic overpacker, and back when I regularly left the house and went places, my bag was stuffed with things: water bottles and too many snacks; toys for my child; a “changing pack” with diapers and wipes; single-serve packets of Advil; a charging block and cord for my phone; a printed-out map, in case my phone lost service at a crucial moment; and magazines, in case my phone lost service and I then had to wait in a line. Not that I just threw things in without consideration. The exact content changed with each individual excursion. What will I need in my tote bag to go to a restaurant with friends? A trip to the Pawpaw Festival? The hour-and-a-half drive to the nearest Whole Foods? The uncertainty! I always erred on the side of “more.” Now, I go to four places outside my house, and one of them is on my property. I go to the creek with my kid; to the parking lot of the grocery store to do curbside pickup; to an out-of-town friend’s empty house to do work; and to the front porch to garden while my kid runs through the sprinkler. I still overpack, but I can standardize my carry list for each of these outings, and I have, making a list for each location and posting it on the side of the fridge. If something goes in my creek pack (kids’ book to read, sunscreen, bug spray), it’s meant to be there. Goodbye, random crap in my bag. My shoulder muscles sure don’t miss you. —Staff writer Rebecca Onion
Formal Parent-Teacher Conferences
For a parent of twin fifth-grade boys, the ritual of sitting down with teachers for 10 minutes once a quarter is a hassle. I have to take off work, if the conference is during the day, or find child care, if it’s at night. Then I have to drive across town, trying to remember all the little issues I’d wanted to discuss from previous weeks that I forgot to jot down. During the conference itself, I have to sit in a too-small chair, for a too-short conversation. And did I mention I have twins? I have to do this twice. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to their teachers. But distance learning—which is, on balance, terrible—has revealed there’s a better way. While trying to help teach the boys at home last spring, I felt more encouraged to reach out to teachers than I ever have in the past. I sent notes of thanks, notes with questions, and notes of total confusion. I received similar notes in response. Together, we hatched plans of attack on how to handle a delicate situation or just how to get all the things done. Many times during each week, I saw the faces of the teachers in my own home. Sure, they were inside the laptop on the counter, talking to their students, but it felt like they were sitting with me in my own kitchen. I didn’t even notice that we did not have an official parent-teacher conference last spring. Now that the boys are back to school in person, I would love to keep up a routine of more frequent, spontaneous contact. That might be too much work for teachers. In which case, I would like the option to do parent-teacher conferences over Zoom. —Designer Holly Allen
I got hooked on foundation when I was a tween, when deep, painful pimples started forming all over my face. In the decade since, foundation has given me comfort and confidence. No, it didn’t look completely natural (cake-y, maybe), but it dulled the redness and gave my face a sheen and tone that I came to expect. I’d been mulling quitting for a while—one of my best friends did in college, and she looked great. Also, I was tired of spending money on it. When I started working from home in mid-March, I decided to save my liquid foundation for when I might see people in person again. In those first few weeks, each time I looked in the mirror—which was a lot, with all the hand-washing—I winced. When I got on video chats with friends or co-workers, I found myself resting my hand on my chin to cover my blemishes. But a month or so in, the expectations I had of my reflection shifted. Maybe I’ve forgotten what that even-tone sheen looked like. Maybe I am finally less invested in others thinking I have zit-less skin. I’m finding there are so many benefits to going bare-faced: I’m no longer wiping my glasses every half-hour to remove oily, beige residue. I’m not stressing about accidentally staining sweatshirts as I pull them over my head. I’m no longer using headspace to calculate when I’ll need to reapply. And now that I’m not slathering the stuff into my pores, I think I might even be having fewer breakouts. —Podcast production assistant Madeline Ducharme
If I never go to another before-times party, I’ll be fine. Any sort of party that you can still have during the pandemic is a pretty good party, in my book. Celebrations I’ve had during COVID have included sending people fancy cake and cookies in the mail and then texting about it, and sitting in my living room with my boyfriend and roommate watching Netflix, the same way I might any night, except that time I happened to be turning 30.
People in my life who typically throw big parties have been thwarted by the coronavirus, and I love it. For a former co-worker’s birthday, I walked two miles and sat on his stoop for a predetermined 15-minute time slot reserved just for me. Fifteen minutes might seem short, but it’s more concentrated attention than one might get from a highly social work acquaintance at their own party. In not-a-pandemic, I would have shown up at a crowded apartment and we would have done a seconds-long performance of mutual excitement to see each other and then I would have spent another hour being a little anxious and a little bored while I talked to strangers and then I would have apologized and spent a bunch of time on the subway. Instead, at this mini stoop party, we talked about how we were actually doing (badly—it’s a pandemic), I ate a piece of cake, and then the next person showed up, and I was obligated by public health guidelines to leave. Sure, I wish that celebrations weren’t confined to either my home or online or the outdoors, and so easily ruinable by rain or other bad weather (I wanted to toast to my new age on a roof!). I really, really wish distance did not confine who we get to see in person now that planes pose such a risk (sorry to miss your wedding, Florida cousin). But right now I can conjure maybe four times in my life that I have deeply enjoyed an honest-to-God party, and they have all been followed up by a hangover. Is that sad? No. Because life without parties is better. —Staff writer Shannon Palus
Working Out Too Hard
When I started working out consistently, I just wanted to lose weight. But once a friend showed me how to use weight machines at the gym, I began working out to build muscle mass and get stronger—or at least that’s how I framed it to myself. I chased the satisfaction that came with holding a plank a little bit longer, running slightly faster, and building muscles that, yes, made my body leaner. And it was all measurable: Going to the gym six days a week to lift, sprint, or do plyometrics translated to a healthier lifestyle, one I could glimpse through my numbers. After the pandemic hit, not being able to safely go to the gym left me with a startling realization: I was still where I started, engaged in a vanity project. It wasn’t about what the scale said anymore; I was genuinely in it to be healthy. But to an extent, chasing those better metrics was also about what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I was still putting my body through hell to be smaller, leaner, and more muscular. This year alone, before isolation began, I worsened a foot injury doing tuck jumps and pulled something in my shoulder trying to stick to an overzealous program.
Instead of pushing myself past the brink with elaborate workouts in my living room, I’ve thought about what health really means to me, and why I was exercising the way I did. Since March, I have found peace in a simpler routine using limited space, a set of 15-pound dumbbells, a jump rope, and a mat. I was surprised how much joy I feel while performing basic bodyweight workouts and running outside. Not being sore all the time is another bonus. I’m more attuned to my body and what it likes and needs, and no longer feeding a metric-gobbling ego. I’ve tossed my measuring tape and my scale for good. I’ve spent time reflecting on how I perceive my body in my therapy appointments. It’s an ongoing, uncertain process, and I will return to the gym someday. But in the meantime, I feel healthier even though I’m spending more time sitting still. —Staff writer Julia Craven
Prohibition-Era Alcohol Laws
I loathe loud, crowded bars, but I love drinking with friends. One of the scant bright spots of these past few months has been ordering a fried chicken sandwich and a cocktail from my favorite neighborhood restaurant for a picnic with my quarantine bubble or a craft brew from a renowned local beer bar to sip while Zooming with family. I’m thrilled to support my favorite bars and restaurants so they can survive the pandemic, while imbibing their delicious concoctions wherever I please. Alcohol laws in America are bizarre, from Massachusetts’s ban on happy hour specials to Utah’s limit on cocktail strength. When I moved to D.C. a decade ago, liquor stores were shuttered on Sundays. Here as in many cities and states, the closing of bars and restaurants prompted officials to brush aside restrictions on to-go beer, wine, and cocktails. The ability to sell beer on Seamless, and serve margaritas at takeout windows, has been a lifeline, restaurant owners say. I’m not the only one hopeful this will stick around once going out to dinner is no longer a risky activity and restaurants are allowed to seat people to their full capacity. Lawmakers in D.C. and elsewhere have signaled it’s a possibility. Sure, there are downsides. It’s harder to prevent minors from ordering booze via delivery apps. I’m not a fan of the waste from the extra packaging (in my experience, mostly nonrecyclable plastic). Plus, most takeout cocktail options come in servings of two or four, yet I’m ordering for one. But hey, it’s a pandemic. Who’s really counting? —Managing Editor Meg Wiegand
The calendar hanging in our kitchen was a sacred text. It’s the way I communicated my travel schedule to my husband and our nanny. As the head of Slate Live, I bounced between the magazine’s D.C. office (my home base), the NYC office, and venues across America and Canada, all in service of producing 30 or so events each year. Here’s a sample four-week period from early 2020: I flew to Utah for the weekend for the Sundance Film Festival. A week later, I went on tour with the Slow Burn team to D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. At least this didn’t involve flying from one coast to the other, then back again the next day, which I do not infrequently. Traveling for fun or to family is great. Traveling for work is rough. I have two small kids at home, so I kept my trips as short and efficient as possible. Even when I would travel to a new city, I spent my time in the airport, the hotel, and the live show venue with no time for sightseeing or adventure. I didn’t get to visit the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. In Vancouver, there was no time to spare for a quick hike. During the pandemic, I get to eat meals with my family every day. I sleep in my own bed every night, with my favorite blanket and blackout curtains. No more 14-hour workdays, no more crappy airport food and spotty airplane Wi-Fi. My suitcase and travel chargers are now in the back of my closet. I can oversee live shows with thousands of audience members from my kitchen counter. The calendar with my schedule now sits abandoned on a shelf. —Faith Smith, executive producer of Slate Live
Last July, after securing permission from my bosses to work remotely for two years, I packed up my New York City apartment and moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. I moved because my boyfriend is in law school here, and I wanted to be with him. I did not move because I particularly wanted to leave New York, though I tried to frame it to myself as a good opportunity to see what not living in New York might be like. But when I got here, I didn’t really give the test run a shot. I figured out a system to mostly avoid working from home: take the train two-and-a-half hours to D.C. Tuesday morning, work from Slate’s D.C. office through Thursday and stay with my sister, then train home on Thursday night. I made sure to go back to New York at least once a quarter, plus I scheduled trips to visit my friends in other places, because, well, when you live in a town where you have no particular attachments, it’s the perfect time to do that. I didn’t make too much of an effort to become a resident of Charlottesville. And then the pandemic hit, and we were all stuck in place.
I told myself that my life here was exactly the same as it would have been anywhere else, but better (yard!). I still didn’t like working from home, but it was easier when everyone else was doing the same thing. I could hang out with my friends in New York the same amount that they were hanging out with one another—suddenly everything was virtual so where I was didn’t matter. I could even go to yoga “at” my Brooklyn studio, with the instructor I loved. I continued to focus on replicating the life I had had in New York, as I had already been doing during the time I “lived” in Charlottesville. The coronavirus made it easier for me to do this. But it’s not pleasant to live in one place while pretending in your heart that you still live in another. It’s not healthy to think about time as a countdown to something else, and it’s not normal for most social events to happen through a screen. So I’ve decided that it’s time to finally live where I live, even though it’s a bizarre moment to figure out how to make a new place home. For me, lately, this has meant biking around the absurd number of horse farms here, buying a National Parks pass, and becoming attached to a specific peach orchard. For the next few months, at least, I’m going to try letting go of my longing in order to just be here. —News director Susan Matthews