If Zoom Fatigue is what happens when you spend too much time with other people (often strangers) on the screen, what do you call spending even a little time with real friends you haven’t seen in months?
Oddly tiring. But in a strange, not-until-COVID kind of way.
I found this out last week when Jean and I did something we hadn’t done in months and used to do all the time: we went for a meal with friends.
We’d planned to be in Toronto for work last Thursday and Friday, so we invited ourselves over for a lunch and two dinners with three couples we’ve known for decades and missed a lot. They’re as lucky in where they live as we are in having a cottage to flee to (now called a Sanctuary Home by the real estate agents). All of them have back yards to lock down and eat out in. Of the three couples, only one has been to a restaurant since March, and that of course was outside on the patio. So their back yards have been re-purposed. They all plan to install propane heaters so they can keep eating outside when the leaves start to fall.
All three of these gatherings were wonderful.
The food was delicious. Practising all those New York Times recipes during the spring baking phase of lockdown has led to perfection in the summer.
But what was said was even more nourishing than what was eaten: on one level, we talked about what old friends talk about the world over when they haven’t seen each other in half a year: our kids, our health, our work, our plans for the next year, the roiling perfidy of Donald Trump. The only thing missing was our plans for travel. Better not to go there. One couple’s son got married last month, both virtually and really, and we saw the pictures of the small crowd dancing 10 feet apart in the giant warehouse. The husband in another couple proudly showed off his art studio where, at 79, he is more prolific and creative than ever.
There was something different this time, though.
One part for sure was a sense of relief, of how lucky we are to be alive and not on ventilators.
Most of us are in the high-risk group that being in our late 60s and 70s exposes us to. And how especially lucky to have won the genetic and geographic lotteries by being Canadians and not Americans or Brits or citizens of most other countries on earth.
But there was another feeling, a competing one that fought for time in my heart and mind:
That feeling was fear.
Not just the low-level anxiety we all feel about will our luck hold. The first six months from March until now weren’t as bad as I’d certainly feared. But what about the next six months from now until next February? The days are getting shorter and colder now. What fresh hell awaits us? And will we be as lucky and well-prepared?
I was reminded of my own huge anxiety back in March when I wrote about A Moment of Despair. The sense that we’re all going to die from some unknown shape-shifting threat has fallen away in the face of reality. But I suspect it lingers still in many of us. One of our dinner friends said that one day last month he was sitting at his computer and, after ploughing through his news feed, he began to quietly weep. There was no inciting reason other than just how unknown the future is, which can be scarier than the monster we know.
One thing the pandemic has changed is our attitudes (or at least my attitude) to things like this. My friend wasn’t confessing this. He wasn’t looking for pity. He was just talking about his day. He worked. He wept. He stopped. He carried on.
That’s actually a lovely by-product of the pandemic. Grown men cry and discuss it the way they used to talk about their golf game.
But the oddest by-product of our immersion back into our former world, filled with people and meals and celebrations, was how exhausted I felt afterwards.
I wasn’t tired during these meals. We all felt both relaxed and animated, the way you do when a normal occasion becomes a special one because it doesn’t happen as often now. Like your first haircut after lockdown. Who knew it could feel so special? Besides, I’m an extrovert; I feed off the energy of other people.
But I was absolutely beat in the hours after these gatherings. All I could do was sleep, not just on Thursday and Friday night, but a good part of the next day too.
What’s that all about?
My sense is our attention spans have been so shot full of holes by the pandemic and its dislocations that any encounter lasting longer than a couple of hours – even ones we crave and are nourished by – makes us feel like we do after a two-hour Zoom meeting.
Our dearest friends may not be that tiny green light atop our computer screens.
But they may create the same effect.