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COVID Rules Force Us To Trade Substance For Sterility, And Will Change Our Culture Forever


In 1960, John Steinbeck and his French poodle Charley left New York to take a road trip from Maine to California, as Steinbeck said, “in search of America.” Outside of Bangor, Maine, the pair stopped at a motor lodge for the night. In the motel and its adjoining restaurant, Steinbeck noted in his travel memoir, everything was very clean and “everything was done in plastics.”

“In the bathroom two water tumblers were sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: ‘These glasses are sterilized for your protection’,” Steinbeck wrote. “Across the toilet seat a strip of paper bore the message: ‘This seat has been sterilized with ultraviolet light for your protection.’ Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.”

Sixty years later, I’m sometimes tempted to sympathize with Steinbeck when I walk into a Target, where a year-old sign urgently tells me to wear a mask “due to an emergency order.” Or when I walk into a coffeeshop and ask for a ceramic mug to wrap my frozen fingers around, and I’m told that a paper cup with a plastic lid is my only option. Or when politicians who break their own rules tell me, with a condescending smile, that I mustn’t hug my family at Thanksgiving or go to church or celebrate my friends’ weddings “for my own protection.”

Everything is protecting me, and yes, sometimes it is horrible.

There’s certainly a place for precautions, and I’m careful to take them when I’m interacting with elderly or COVID-conscious family members, friends, and colleagues. But some of the changes, which we’ve lived with for nearly a year now, are inconsistent, ineffective, and often flaunted by the politicians who impose them. They may also have lasting effects on what we value and what we’re willing to risk for that elusive thing called “really living.”

Curbside pickup has been an incredibly beneficial means for restaurants to stay open when their governors won’t allow them to welcome sit-down patrons. Online shopping has provided for our needs when the stores were closed. The stickers they put on delivery pizzas saying “this pizza comes to you touch-free from the oven” allay our fears. But how might these protections and reassurances re-shape our expectations?

In the 1950s and 1960s, when Steinbeck and Charley took their roadtrip, the postwar United States was enjoying an obsession with all things plastic, pre-packaged, and linoleum. Automatic appliances, plastic Tupperware, TV dinners — they made life convenient and kept up with the fast pace of a booming postwar economy. But for all their benefits, many of these conveniences fed into an attitude that prized the sterile over the substantial.

After an economic depression and a global war, and under the continued threat of nuclear conflict, it’s not surprising that this era emphasized safety, efficiency, and security. But there’s also something to be pondered about how sanitary regulations, safety precautions, and an abundance of plastic wrap make us more squeamish as a society.

After all, there’s a reason some of the best food can be found at 50-year-old, hole-in-the-wall dives that don’t stock up on Chlorox wipes. Growing up in Florida, whenever we went anywhere near the beach my dad and I were on the hunt for each town’s best plate of fried shrimp.

He found this place where you could buy fresh raw seafood by the pound and for a couple more dollars they would fry it up for you there. I remember at first being turned off by the smell of fish, the mismatched patio furniture used as dining tables, and the garish blue paint slapped on the walls.

I have no idea how that place would score on a sanitary inspection. But when they served you your shrimp, hot from the fryer, it was fresh and it was good.

Steinbeck recounts a similar experience. “I remember an old Arab in North Africa, a man whose hands had never felt water,” he says. “He gave me mint tea in a glass so coated with use that it was opaque, but he handed me companionship, and the tea was wonderful because of it.”

I’m not opposed to handwashing, of course. But we must be careful not to become so absorbed in our bubbles of precaution, hand sanitizer, and fear that we permanently lose the sense of adventure, resilience, and toughness that built this Union.

If the Americans who settled the West had applied our modern standards of risk aversion, few covered wagons would have ever made it across the Mississippi. If the American space program hadn’t valued the Final Frontier enough to risk something, we’d still be stuck behind the sound barrier. There’s a reason the saying goes “high risk, high reward.”

That doesn’t mean we’re all called to put our lives on the line exploring new territories. But fear of any kind of risk can sometimes trap us into being so concerned about the safety of something that we forget to consider its value.

There are things in life worth risking our safety for. Those judgments will and should be different for different people — but valuing security above all else can trick us into forgetting what those things are. And if you have nothing in your life for which you would risk your comfort and safety, for what are you truly living?

“If we get to thinking we are men, we might remember that in the two and a half years of pushing through wild and unknown country to the Pacific Ocean and then back, only one man [of the Lewis and Clark expedition] died and only one deserted,” Steinbeck wrote from the Continental Divide. “And we get sick if the milk delivery is late and nearly die of heart failure if there is an elevator strike.”

We don’t all have to be Lewis and Clark. But we do have a duty to consider the beliefs and convictions we value most in this life, and be willing to take risks and make sacrifices in their pursuit.

We are not merely bodies to be protected but souls to nourish. As Steinbeck said, “a sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”