Day 561: Skippable

October 5, 2021 Covid Jon Mooallem Rebecca Solnit

The recent New York Times Magazine’s Travel Issue includes an essay by author Jon Mooallem about the first trip he took since the outbreak of the pandemic. As with many of Mooallem’s essays, it’s a lovely story, but I most liked the introspective beginning that’s about a particular effect the pandemic had on him:

It hadn’t been too painful, initially, to settle into a small, circumscribed life — going grocery shopping, volunteering at our local vaccine clinic, getting together with friends outside. But it meant I’d never been forced, or forced myself, to acclimate to the virus as much as other people seemed to have done. I wasn’t learning to live within the odds. (…) And while I’m sure this left me with an exaggerated sense of the risks of leaving my particular bubble, the real problem was, I’d started chronically undervaluing the rewards. I’d been forgoing so much that forgoing felt easy. Too many things I imagined doing began to feel skippable, arbitrary, not a tragedy to decline.

For me, the first few months of the pandemic were all about cancelling activities: Most prominently a trip to Korea and Japan that we had been planning, but also all kinds of smaller, everyday things. We cancelled dinners, yoga classes were canceled, restaurants were closed.

As the pandemic eased up during the summer of 2020, more activities became possible—and yet I skipped many of them for fear of the virus or because they were simply so restricted that they didn’t make sense. (There is only so much takeout food you can eat before it becomes obvious that eating out of a paper carton is a far cry from a real restaurant experience.)

Somehow, that spirit of skipping things has stuck around. Although I’ve been fully vaccinated for a couple of months now, I often find myself in the mindset that Mooallem describes: Many more things feel skippable than before, and though I’m definitely someone who tends to linger on missed opportunities, that famous FOMO—that sense of incurring future regret—hasn’t been pushing me towards activities like it used to.

The trouble with that is that time ticks on mercilessly: Get into a habit of skipping and suddenly months have passed without too many memorable experiences. Skipping is a mindset that makes you lazy—or rather comfortable with a degree of laziness that I’ve never previously experienced.

Interestingly, some of the most meaningful activities of the year have been things that I was on the verge of skipping and pushed myself to do anyway: Random outings that first seemed tedious but bloomed into the most memorable days, multi-day cycling excursions that felt overly challenging at their outset but huge as a lived experience.

There are, undoubtedly, many sensible reasons for skipping things—even fear can be one of them. But the experience of the last year and a half, paired with Mooallem’s essay have made me realize how easy it is to fall into a habit of skipping things for no reason, or for the sole reasons that doing so is comfortable.

In her book The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit tells the story of an event that made her have a similar realization:

At the long table next to us was a big exuberant group of people in their prime, talking and eating piles of food. I realized at some point they were a river-rafting party, and I must have spoken more loudly than I’d intended when I said that I’d give my eye-teeth to go down the Grand Canyon. One of the guides came over to our table and told us that a few people had dropped out, they had extra places and supplies, and would we like to go? What do you do when a wish is suddenly granted? I asked when they were leaving, and he said, In about an hour, and I asked how long we had to decide, and he said, About half an hour. (…) We already knew we wanted to get into that river that had sung us asleep that night, to be carried away on the current into the deep folds of the earth, back through time to the creation. And so we went back to the river guide and shocked him by saying yes, we would go, for a week or two, on twenty minutes’ notice. It was his turn to retreat and mull things over, and he returned to us a little while later saying that the rangers had said we were not on the insurance list and so they could not take us. We thanked him and went onward on dry land.

She had said yes to an opportunity, and though the opportunity didn’t end up materializing, it nevertheless left an impression:

That yes was a huge landmark in my life, a dividing point. I’d wrestled against the inner voice of my mother, the voice of caution, of duty, of fear of the unknown, the voice that said the world was dangerous and safety was always the first measure and that often confused pleasure with danger (…) I came out of that minor adventure with a motto that stood me in good stead ever after—“Never turn down an adventure without a really good reason”—that I used to assay any invitation or possibility I was about to reflexively dismiss.

The term adventure” has been co-oped as a marketing term and become practically meaningless, but I nevertheless find the spirit of that statement helpful: It’s an effective tool to wield against the acquired mindset of reflexively skipping things.

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