An Introvert’s Guide to Coming Out of Lockdown: When the end of a pandemic causes panic

My dirty little secret

“I’m nervous about the idea of going back to the office,” my coworker admitted.

I understood, but felt like that’s something one shouldn’t admit out loud.

“I’m over it!” a lot of other people have been saying. “I’m done with this pandemic!”

My anxiety actually went down during the peak of the lockdown.

I know that makes me sound selfish. Of course, I don’t want people getting sick and dying and losing their jobs just so I can feel more relaxed. But the fantasy of everyone staying in quarantine forever is more than a little appealing.

What I didn’t miss during lockdown

I didn’t have to ride a bus two hours from Lambertville, NJ to work in NYC and then two hours back three days a week. Actually, it wasn’t as terrible as everyone thought. I wrote an entire book on that bus and I watched the complete series of Game of Thrones, Succession, Madmen, and Handmaid’s Tale. But I definitely did not enjoy being crammed next to someone with body odor or eating ear-splittingly crunchy chips or shouting on a conference call while sitting under a NO CELL PHONE sign. And even pre-corona I worried about my health. I’m still haunted by the time that old guy in the seat behind me sneezed so hard I felt it on the back of my neck.

I haven’t had one single bout of pre-party social anxiety in the last three months. Even after years of therapy, I still look at a party invitation as some sort of threat. My husband Saul and I used to spend the entire day before every social event debating whether or not we should go.

ME: “It’d be nice to stay home.”

SAUL: “Do you think we’d regret not going?”

ME: “I guess it’d be rude to cancel now.”

SAUL: “Why did we agree to do this in the first place?”

I was no different before I met Saul. I once went up to the door of a party I had driven an hour to get to, stood on the porch listening to all the people inside, and promptly sprinted back to my car and drove home.

Zoom parties aren’t so bad. I don’t get trapped in a corner with one annoying person, and if I want to leave, I can pretend my connection is bad instead of sneaking out the bathroom window.

As much as I love theatre, I don’t miss people next to me who can’t stop themselves from texting. “I’m trying to meet someone after the show,” one guy lamely explained as he texted on his glaringly bright phone while Sally Field performed a monologue as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie a mere few feet away. At another play, a woman explained she was obsessively texting throughout the first act of On Golden Pond because she had a family member dying at home. If that was true (and I had my doubts) perhaps she shouldn’t have come. I love theatre, but only a play starring Angela Lansbury would be worth skipping a loved one’s deathbed.

New abnormal

Quarantine suited me.

I loved how strict the rules became at my grocery store with arrows taped on the floor that pointed the proper direction to walk down each aisle. I glared over my mask at a woman who blatantly defied them to grab a can of creamed corn. I’m pretty sure I would thrive in a police state

I began to look forward to walking with my dog Alfie and rarely seeing another soul. If I did, it was like seeing a zombie. It was as if I had the world all to myself — just me and the zombies. Alfie liked it too. His main job became barking hysterically through the window at the FedEx man who dropped off packages of unnecessary items around 17 times a day. That was plenty of excitement for him.

Who was that masked man?

But now the world is opening back up. The streets are crowded with non-zombies and you can walk willy-nilly in any direction at the grocery store.

And we are divided between the maskers and non-maskers.

This stupid debate drives me absolutely bonkers. I lived through AIDS, where people debated for years whether to wear protection on an entirely different area of their body. Why would you not want to wear something that at the very least makes other people feel safer and more secure?

I know some claim masks are weak, but I find a man who wears one kind of sexy. Maybe it was my crush as a kid on Batman’s sidekick Robin. In fact, I wish we could wear tights and a cape to go along with our masks.

I live a ten-minute walk from one of the most charming little towns in this country: New Hope, PA. You have to cross a cute little bridge over the Delaware River to get to it and the walkway is narrow and often crowded. The ratio of maskers to non-maskers is about 30/70.

A few weeks ago, Saul and I walked across it to meet with a friend for a socially-distanced backyard meal. A couple was strolling toward us wearing no masks while holding hands and making no effort to move to the side. Finally, I couldn’t take it.

“WALK SINGLE FILE!” I screamed.

The guy just mocked me. “You’re not socially distancing if you’re talking to me.”

Saul joined in with, “Grow up and be a responsible adult and wear a mask.” There may have been a few curse words thrown in there. I can’t recall.

It felt really good to yell at such entitled jerks, but it is probably not a good habit to get into. Still, I wouldn’t mind having a job as a Bridge Mask Monitor with all the power that would come with it. In the olden days, I think I would have made a great bridge troll.

What I miss from pre-quarantine

· Walking by myself after work in Manhattan and getting lost in the anonymous crowd as I took in the sights of this city I’ve known since I was 18 and has yet to bore me.

· Observing every type of humanity from all over the world on a crowded subway car.

· The thrill a moment live theatre can bring that no film or TV show can — Ruthie Ann Miles singing “Something Wonderful” in The King and I so simply that it brought chills, or Andrea Martin singing “No Time at All” while hanging on a trapeze in Pippin. Both moments caused the audience to set down their phones and rise to their feet to cheer.

· How my town filled up on weekends with people who came to appreciate its charm, and then how it belonged to the townies again from Monday to Thursday.

A trick my dog Alfie can teach all of us

The truth is, I want those things back as much as the rest of us, but I don’t think rushing there is the answer.

As always, Alfie shows me the answer if I just pay attention. He hurt his front leg about a month ago. Every time he stopped limping, we would take him on longer walks and let him chase deer and play with other dogs. By the time we got home, he was limping again. We finally realized we have to wait longer — even when he seemed totally okay — if we wanted his leg to really heal. We had to exercise self-discipline and patience to make progress. It wasn’t the most convenient solution to the problem, but Alfie’s injury didn’t care.

It seems pretty logical that the same goes for the pandemic. So, I am going to go at my own pace and not care if anyone thinks I’m being too cautious.

Saul and I were going to walk across the bridge again last Friday evening. My husband had convinced me we could do it. He told me was going to keep me calm. “Who is going to keep you calm?” I asked, and it was a very good question.

As we were about to go out the door I realized I wasn’t taking care of myself. “I can’t do this.” I said.

Saul immediately understood, and we decided to drive across instead. As we did, we saw groups of people without masks taking up the entire walkway. We yelled at them through our rolled-up windows, which was just as satisfying but safer.

It’s like on the plane when they tell you to put on your oxygen mask first before you try to help your baby: Put on your mask first… then you can help put our world back together.


About the author: Keith Hoffman lives locked away in Lambertville, NJ. He dreams of being a superhero or a troll or a hermit. Or maybe even a hunchback if he can find a nice bell tower to hide in.

Meeting a Lot of Mr. Wrongs to Get to Mr. Right

My Disastrous Dating Life 


Recently a good friend asked to have a Zoom chat to talk about how I ended up married after being single for fifteen years.

Ahh! I thought. This will be a great opportunity to pass on my fabulous wisdom. How lucky can my lonely friend get?

But by the time we got to our scheduled chat, I realized I had nothing profound to offer — just the same old clichés.

It happens when you least expect it.
Learn to love yourself first.
They won’t buy the cow if they get the milk for free?

The only thing I could think to tell him was that I had decided finding love was a numbers game. If I really wanted to meet someone, I had to do the work myself.

I wasn’t being invited to fancy balls like the sisters in Pride and Prejudice. I wasn’t being set up by a yenta like the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. I could dance around my apartment with my broom singing Matchmaker Matchmaker Make Me a Match as much as I wanted, but it wasn’t going to get me a man.

Trust me. I know from experience.

But dating was never one my top skills. It was one humiliating experience after the next. And I never really got good at it.

Mitchell — The double downer

I adored Mitchell.

It was 1985. He was a handsome actor/waiter who worked at Joe Allen’s, a restaurant in the theatre district of New York City. He was twenty-four, the same age as me, but that was where the similarity ended.

Mitchell was tall with jet black hair, piercing blue eyes, a jutting masculine chin and an aura of sophisticated glamour. I was an average-looking receptionist at a video duplication company. On each of our three dates I was star-struck, as if I was having dinner with Cary Grant. Mitchell didn’t want to get too physical too fast — he wanted to go slow and really get to know me first. Of course, that unavailability made him all the more desirable.

I had big plans for our fourth date. I had decided it was going to be the date. That’s when things were going to go past third base all the way to home plate at my apartment. So when my phone rang, and I heard his deep voice at the end of the line, my heart leapt into my throat. Just the right position for me to choke on it.

“I can’t see you anymore,” Mitchell said. “I’m in love with someone else.”

What? But? Why?

He had never mentioned he was dating someone else. I had convinced myself he felt about me like I did about him. I thought we were going slow because I was someone special. But now I understood it was because he was marking time until someone better came along. I felt devastated. I felt stupid.

His call came only days before an already planned trip I was taking by myself to Key West. But instead of hiding in my dark bed and breakfast with the curtain drawn, I forced myself to spend the days riding my rented bike, swimming in the ocean, and watching the sun set while savoring a slice of tart key lime pie.

As my beat-up heart healed, I was almost back to my old self by the last day of the trip. Just because Mitchell isn’t attracted to me doesn’t mean I don’t have worth, I told myself. He just isn’t the one. Now I have room to meet the right guy.

I wasn’t only healed. I was enlightened.

I arrived home from the airport and hit the button on my answering machine.

“It’s Mitchell. Call me.”

I threw down my bags and dialed as quickly as I could. “Hi, it’s Keith.”

“I made a terrible mistake,” he blurted out. “I’m so sorry. I think I just got scared.”

It was a miracle. It was that point in the movie where you think Meg Ryan is going to spend every New Year’s Eve for the rest of her life alone and then Billy Crystal shows up. The girl was going to get the guy after all! Or in this case…the guy was going to get the guy.

Mitchell wanted to meet that very evening. I didn’t even unpack before I jumped in the shower and got ready. He had picked a restaurant that was a favorite of his on the Upper East Side. I lived in Brooklyn and it would take over an hour to get there, but I wasn’t going to let that get in the way. The long ride on the subway gave me time to dream about the perfect rest of our lives together.

Mitchell was already waiting at the table when I arrived. I rushed over giddily and sat down.

“Wow! You look wonderful tonight!” I said.

“I’m sorry. I just can’t do this,” he replied.

“What??”

“I’m sorry. I thought I could, but I can’t.”

I had so many questions. Why did you call me after I had just gotten over you? What happened between the phone call and me arriving at the restaurant to change your mind?

But mostly I wondered. Why? Why can’t you love me?

But I didn’t ask any of these questions. I just sat there what my mouth hanging open.

“Okay,” I finally said with a defeated sigh.

“We can still have dinner together,” he offered.

“No….no…I’m kind of tired. I’m just going to go home.”

I stood and walked out trying to look like I was taking this all in stride when I really wanted to just curl up and hide under one of the restaurant tables.

I climbed down the steps to the subway and felt better just being underground and away from that awful experience. All I could focus on was being home in my bed eating Pringles and weeping loudly. I looked down the tracks impatiently and waited for the subway to come.

Twenty minutes later I was still waiting.

Thirty minutes later the platform was full of people but still no subway.

Forty-five minutes — no subway and I had to pee. The trains seemed to have stopped running.

I considered throwing myself onto the tracks and ending my miserable life by being tragically crushed under the wheels of an oncoming train like Anna Karenina, but realized since no subway was coming, I would just be lying on the tracks for a long time with people staring curiously down at me.

I finally made it home and Mitchell never reconsidered again. He got together with the other guy and they were a couple for several years. I have to admit that when I occasionally heard rumors of their epic fights, it gave me just a little pleasure.

And the loser is…

I wish I could say that was the worst of my dates, but it wasn’t. There were so many, I can’t even begin to pick the actual worst. Some contenders:

  • The guy who insisted on meeting me the same day I returned from a trip to Nepal. We had chatted for months, but he was in the neighborhood and wanted to have drinks. “I’m not at my best,” I tried to explain. “I’m really jetlagged.” “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” he reassured me. Wow. He seemed like a pretty understanding guy. I arrived bedraggled and bleary-eyed. Once I sat down, my jetlag hit hard, and I struggled to keep up with the conversation. Later he texted. “You are a nice guy but didn’t seem very engaged in our conversation. Thanks anyway but not really interested in meeting again.”
  • The one I went out with only a week after I’d decided to stop drinking who wanted to meet me at a wine bar. I didn’t want to seem high-maintenance and ask him to pick somewhere else. Besides, you can drink other things at a wine bar, right? Apparently it was VERY important to this guy that a date drink actual wine at a wine bar. He felt I met him under false pretenses. That was the last I heard from him.
  • The blind date I was set up on by a famous celebrity I knew. (Who doesn’t love a celebrity friend?) It was an okay date but no chemistry. A week later, the celebrity called and asked why I wasn’t going on a second date. I told her he was very nice but there was no romantic spark. She got mad and never spoke to me again.
  • The date where I fought with the guy because he told me he had thrown a rock at a sick opossum hanging out in front of his apartment. During the same dinner, we got into a second fight because I told him I always put my clothes away in drawers when I stayed at hotels. “You are going to get bedbugs,” he said with certainty. “You don’t really know that,” I replied. “YOU ARE GOING TO GET BEDBUGS!” he insisted as if he was putting a curse on me. We both angrily agreed that would be our first and last date.
  • Then there was the guy I went out with for several months who kept falling asleep at odd times. I thought I just bored him until years later he confessed he had been secretly addicted to meth the entire time.

What doesn’t kill you forces you to keep living

So I was a terrible dater and had a lot of really terrible dates.

But there was something that kept me going. It happened after that date with Mitchell back in the 80’s. When I had finally made it home, I wanted to do anything but feel that gross pain of rejection. Maybe I should smoke pot or buy a pack of cigarettes or pour myself a huge glass of wine or two or three.

But instead I decided to do nothing. I was going to let myself experience the pain instead of numbing out. I lay on my couch and just felt it. I cried for about fifteen minutes, but then got kind of tired of that.

Then a random funny thought popped into my head. I don’t remember what it was anymore, but it made me smile and then actually chuckle out loud. In that moment, I realized that this pain I was feeling would not kill me. If I just let it play out, I couldn’t even sustain it for fifteen minutes. Learning that made me fear it less.

During the next decades of bad dates, I’d have to occasionally remind myself of that lesson. It would give me the strength and endurance to keep going until I finally met a guy who wouldn’t dream of throwing a rock at a sick opossum and has seen me jetlagged many times and still stuck around.

So, I suppose my advice to my friend or anyone else asking is to not let a little humiliation stop you from searching for what you want.

And just in case that guy’s right about bed bugs, don’t put your clothes in hotel room dresser drawers.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Keith Hoffman lives in Lambertville, NJ with his husband Saul. You can read his blog at theravenlunatic.com. He currently has no celebrity friends.

 

My Dog Would Make the Worst Service Dog

All the ways my dog does not soothe my anxious mind

Alfie. Who’s a good boy?

The perfect pet, if you happen to be a farmer in the Australian outback

It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings…or the dog pushes you off stage

On the other hand, I make a great service human


Figuring Out Our Relationship Puzzle

Is true love always easy?

Everyone’s a critic

Last month, I posted what I hoped was a relatable relationship essay entitled How to Stay Married During a Pandemic. I tried to write something funny but maybe a little wise about the pressure that being quarantined together can put on any marriage.

The right way to nap and grocery shop

Saul often wonders what I would write about if I didn’t have him as inspiration — or as he calls himself — fodder. We aren’t one of those Zen couples who automatically validate each other’s feelings and immediately work towards a compromise whenever we have a disagreement.

Fake couples as real role models

It’s a question I’ve often asked myself. I have very early memories of my mom and dad’s passionate arguments. Then my dad died suddenly when I was seven, and I’m pretty sure the lesson I learned was fighting leads to abandonment. Since my mom never remarried I had to look other places for clues, and television was my best resource. That left me very confused.

What rocks can teach you about love

I’m a sucker for clickbait.

Finding the piece that fits

I love that Saul is willing to work on our relationship together. When I first started dating him my friend Sara, who saw me go through a lot of bad dating experiences said of him, “he’s in it to win it.” Saul said during that same period. “You have to admit, we both give a damn.”


Three Tips to Becoming Everyone’s Favorite Boss

And how to apply them in a pandemic

Photo by Pablo Varela on Unsplash

I’m a good boss. I can’t deny it.

I‘m terrible at fixing cars. I’m a horrible cook. I am the worst athlete you would ever want to know, but I’m a good boss. Maybe I’m not the best boss but I often seem to be able to inspire my team to do their work and be proud of a job well down. I’m often told by my employees I am the best boss they’ve ever had. And why would someone whose paycheck depends on me ever lie about that?

I’ve been my own boss, the boss of large TV crews and now I am boss in a huge corporation. There are a couple tips I’ve learned in the few decades I’ve been doing this, but nothing could have prepared me for these last few months when a pandemic sent us all working from home.

I’ve quickly realized that even though it’s a very different world right now, the rules still apply more than ever.

You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room

I don’t remember who told me this. It was very likely the smartest person in the room.

I do recall it was told to me when I was brand new at running the story department for a TV production company. I had been working from home as a freelance writer for several years but had hit a dry spell so I had to put on pants that didn’t have an elastic waist and get a job in an office.

On my very first day, a Production Manager walked purposefully into my office holding a huge calendar.

“When do you think we will be able online the locked cuts?” She asked.

I had no idea what that sentence meant.

I didn’t even know what a Production Manager even did but I was pretty sure she worked for me.

She stood there looking at me waiting for an answer.

“Two days?” I said tentatively.

She seemed slightly puzzled.

“Tues…day?” I guessed again.

I could tell she now realized I had no idea what I was talking about.

“I need help.” I finally confessed.

And instead of storming out and calling me a fraud, she smiled kindly. For the next two hours we sat on my office floor poring over her huge calendar as she taught me all about making a production schedule. We are still friends twenty years later. Whenever we look at each other and say Twos…day? that means we have no idea what we are talking about.

Even when I’m in charge I have to remain teachable. Not being the smartest in the room is a lot less pressure and allows those who work for me to have better ideas and gain confidence in the process.

I’m certainly not the smartest person in dealing with this pandemic. I have had to say “I don’t know” and “I need help” a lot lately. And I would only be half as efficient working remotely if I didn’t have the help and ideas of my staff to help me muddle through.

Hire good people and let them do their jobs

I know this is not always possible. I once inherited someone else’s hire who informed me I was the worst boss she ever had. I think she changed her mind once we figured out how to work together, but I’m afraid to ask and ruin my Best Boss record.

Hiring is the most important thing I can do and I always have to go with my gut. It’s way more important to me than a resume. I feel you can always tell by talking to someone if they are going to be the right person for the job. And if we share the same sense of humor they get major bonus points. I spend most of my waking hours with the people I work with so why wouldn’t I hire the ones I really want to spend my time with?

Job interviews are all about chemistry. I learned this when I was on the other side of the process. Since I freelanced for many years, I went on a ton of them. I had great ones and ones where I just bombed. There was the time an executive offered me a cherry and I nervously ate the whole bowl in the next ten minutes. Or the time I lost my glasses even though I had not moved from my chair during the entire interview. I got both those jobs because we were able to laugh about it. And then there was the one where I brought my new backpack and went searching through it for my resume only to realize I had picked up and rifled through my interviewer’s similar-looking bag by mistake. She was not amused. I would have been and probably would have hired me.

I put a lot of care and thought into the people I’ve hired for my current job. They are so good they barely need me. I’m glad of it. It would be very hard to have to be micromanaging by Zoom.

It helps to be human

One of the best lessons I learned when I ran TV crews is that being a boss doesn’t have to be a rigid role. My job took me and my team into remote areas of the world where we knew no one and worked hard until late into the evening when we’d gather together and wind down. Of course, there were boundaries to be kept. Once a new production assistant got super drunk and started yelling in my face, “DO YOU KNOW MY NAME? DO YOU KNOW MY NAME??” I wanted to explain to him that was not the best way to get noticed, and it would have been in fact better if I did not know his name.

The head of the large corporate company where I now work has always seemed extremely unapproachable. He is in charge of thousands of people around the world and is quite intimidating. Even though his office is in the same NYC building I work from, I’m sure he doesn’t know my name (although, to be fair, I’ve never drunkenly asked him at a party). Whenever I saw him I’d usually tried to avoid him.

Not long before the pandemic, he was standing in front of the entrance of our office deep into a very intense conversation on his phone. As I approached the door, I realized there was no way to get inside the building without interrupting him. I couldn’t wedge myself past him to swipe my own badge, and wasn’t about to gently tap him on the shoulder. So, I stood there feeling like a fool for over ten minutes until he finally swiped his own badge and walked in with zero awareness I had been standing behind him.

But since quarantine, this guy has been leading a weekly Zoom meeting for those same thousands of employees on Wednesday mornings from his home with his son operating the camera. Every week I see him in his living room occasionally giving his kid instructions while talking to us about the state of company and the state of each of us. He shows what seems like genuine concern over employees who have experienced loss or are feeling overwhelmed and lonely, and offers resources to those who need it. He is not being some old-fashioned macho idea of a “strong” leader. He is being human and ironically in a time of social distancing: less remote and more approachable. In my eyes he has shown what a true leader can be.

Zoom presents a less “posed” version of our world than Facebook or Instagram. We can’t always control our children or pets or spouses from interfering from the perfect picture we often strive to present to our coworkers. We are all seeing in a much more intimate way that all our office mates are just humans doing the best we can.

And no matter how “corporate” we become again when this is all over. It’s a good lesson to never forget. Being a good leader is being a good human.

ABOUT THE AUTHOUR: Keith Hoffman is proud he got through the article without making a “smartest person in the Zoom” joke.

Laughs, Love and Joy During the End of Times: Finding Positives in the Negatives

I’m a romantic optimist. I can’t help myself.

I am compelled to search almost desperately for something to smile about or fall in love with even when everything feels terrifying and bleak.

It’s my father’s fault. Well actually it’s the fault of several generations of Irish ancestors. You don’t survive potato famines, the Troubles and centuries of alcoholism without learning to laugh a little at the absurdity of life.

Jokes in the attic

Humor can be a tricky thing. Last week, I wrote what I thought was a hilarious blog piece about how crabby I can be on my birthday on a normal year and how I was even worse this year smack in the middle of a pandemic.

I worked hours on that piece and wrapped it up with an inspiring ending that stirringly celebrated humanity. I posted it and waited for the accolades.

Finally, the first comment popped up.

“YOU SOUND LIKE A VERY SELFISH, NOT NICE PERSON.” Nancy M

I was flabbergasted.

I ran downstairs to my husband Saul and read her hurtful comment to him but he only burst out laughing. “Nancy’s got you figured out!”

Maybe he’s right. My humor was too dark even as a child at St. Jude Elementary School. Back then, I was obsessed with The Diary of Anne Frank. When I wrote a book report about it, my only critique was that Anne didn’t mine more humor out of being cooped up with all those people. Sister Maura marked me down a grade for being “insensitive” but I still think my diary would have been funnier.

Is that a bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket or are you excited to see me?

Even now, I can’t resist a good love story. And my coworker just told me a good one.

Her daughter hates dating, but she is 27 and feels her biological clock urgently ticking. And this was before time ground to a halt because of a pandemic.

“Why don’t set up a Zoom meeting with one of those guys you meet on Tinder?“ her mom suggested.

It seemed like a dumb “mom” idea, but then her daughter realized it had a lot going for it. You only have to make the top half of your body look decent for the date (I just heard on NPR that shirt sales are currently skyrocketing while absolutely no one is buying pants). If it’s a disaster, you’re already home when it’s over. Plus a guy who’ll meet you on Zoom during the time of Covid19 is probably not looking just to get in your pants (or lack thereof).

So her daughter tried it out and met a really nice guy on her first virtual date. In fact, it went so well that they ended up meeting at a park sitting on separate benches. They got to know each other by yelling small talk from six feet away while snacking on the wine and cheese they each brought for themselves.

I mean they have to get married now so they can tell their children the amazing story of how they got together.

Doing the dog math

Who am I to say look on the bright side when people are facing unemployment, loneliness, fear and depression? Maybe you aren’t finding anything funny or maybe your heart’s just a little broken by all this.

The other day I was sinking into despair, but I still had to walk my dog, Alfie. When you are in a funk, chores feel that much more awful.

And for as smart as my breed of dog is supposed to be, Alife does not know how to read the room.

HEY HUMAN! LET’S GO FOR A WALK! THIS IS GOING TO BE SO MUCH FUN, RIGHT? ARE YOU AS EXCITED AS ME???? THIS IS SO GREAT! OH MY GOD, HUMAN, HOW EXCITED ARE YOU RIGHT NOW ABOUT THIS WALK, AM I RIGHT? AM I RIGHT?”

He wasn’t right. But I got off the couch, put on his leash and hiked…no…trudged through the woods on a trail by the Delaware River.

Alfie LOVES sticks. He is obsessed with him. I swear one time when I was driving with Alfie he turned to me from the passenger seat and calmly said “sticks are my heroin.” I can’t be sure if I just imagined that though.

And he loves when I throw them into the river for him to swim out and retrieve. He is uncanny in his ability to figure out how fast the current is and at what angle he needs to approach the stick at exactly the right time to grab it in his mouth. It’s like he’s doing geometry and physics at the same time.

As I watched him arrive at the stick and chomp down on it in the middle of the river at the exact right time I felt it.

I felt joy.

And because my life has quieted down so much, I could really feel this joyful feeling. I really hope you all know what it feels like to see this living thing you cherish so much experiencing its own joy. Nothing tops it.

But as I wrote that last paragraph, I got an alert on my phone announcing all the trails and parks by the Delaware River have closed for an indefinite period of time to keep crowds from gathering.

All Alfie joy is cancelled.

But not really. He and I are going to use our combined brain power to find something else fun. Maybe we are not as funny or smart as we think we are, but we both feel strongly that now more than ever, it is vital to find those moments where we can laugh or fall a little bit in love or simply savor those tiny moments that bring us that universal feeling we call joy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR — Keith Hoffman is NOT a very selfish not nice person, Nancy.

How to Stay Married During a Pandemic

When Self-Isolation Becomes Couple-Isolation

I’ll be honest. This is unchartered territory. I am only at the end of four weeks of self-quarantine, so I can only tell you how to stay married for literally four weeks of self-quarantine. By the end of Week Four I may be writing an article entitled How to Work with a Divorce Lawyer Using Zoom.

But they say write what you know, and all I know right now is the inside of my house and my husband. And these days I really know my husband, Saul. I mean, I know every single thing there is to know about him.

The other day Saul reminded me that familiarity breeds contempt. “No, it doesn’t,” I replied. “Shut up.”

But then I reminded myself that he is the only person in the world I am allowed to come within 6-feet of without having to be hosed down like Meryl Streep in Silkwood, so I put on a really big smile and said, “Yes, dear. That is so incredibly insightful!”

I’ve noticed a lot of single people posting on social media that they can’t wait to have sex again when all this is over. But I’ve not seen one post from someone in a relationship bragging about their excessive love-making while quarantined together. The couples I’ve talked to wonder if they’ll ever feel romantic toward each other again.

Like the rest of the world, only a few weeks ago I went to work and ran errands and was glad to see a familiar face when I walked in the front door at night. Now that very same face is there when I wake up and when I eat and when I breathe and when I blink. We have completely caught up on each other’s life stories.

Here is a sample conversation from last week.:

ME: Did I ever tell you about when my mom was in her forties and wore a lime green bikini to tear down vines in our backyard?

SAUL: Yes.

ME (continuing): It was soooo funny. The vines turned out to be…

SAUL (interrupting with an edge in his voice): …poison ivy, and the rash covered every part of her body except her bathing-suit parts. You told me that story earlier at lunch and also at breakfast. You also told me on our first date and wrote about it in your memoir which you’ve read to me twice now.

ME: Oh right. (Pause) Did I ever tell you about…

SAUL: Yes.

I’m also going through this with my dog, Alfie. When I look down at him and say, “Who’s a good boy??” He gazes up at me wearily as if to say, We’ve already gone over this several times today.

My husband and I have mostly been very good at carving out space for ourselves. I am a writer and he is an artist, so we already value alone time for ourselves and each other. And we’re lucky that two years ago we moved from our tiny apartment with no doors in Brooklyn to a three-story house 70 miles outside the city. In our old place when we had a fight, I would storm into the next room only a few feet away from Saul vowing never to speak to him again before pulling a thin curtain closed between us. It just never had the dramatic effect I desired.

Now we have enough space that I can create a makeshift office out of Saul’s art studio on the top floor while he stress-bakes through hundreds of Great British Baking Show recipes two stories below. But still, in the first days of me working from home, we had our run-ins. Sometimes I wandered downstairs to get a glass of milk and a snack while Saul was deep into dough-kneading in the kitchen.

“What are you doing in here?” he’d ask tensely. “Getting a snack,” I’d reply defensively. This often escalated into Saul growling something about needing to concentrate while making a “Queen of Puddings” and me marching out of the kitchen shouting “Can’t a man get a cookie in his own castle?”

We soon realized that part of the problem was that we weren’t tackling things together. Only a month ago we planned trips and parties, or even just went out to dinner or the movies. We had a mutual sense of purpose. But our new routine of avoiding each other during the day and watching television together at night wasn’t enough.

So we made a very specific chart to give us shared activities and projects:

MONDAY NIGHT — SOCIAL MEDIA BLACKOUT (way harder than I thought)

WEDNESDAY NIGHT — JIGSAW PUZZLE

FRIDAY NIGHT — DANCE TOGETHER FOR A HALF HOUR IN THE LIVING ROOM

SATURDAY NIGHT — BLACK-AND-WHITE MOVIE

SUNDAY NIGHT — ROMANTIC DATE NIGHT

As for my kitchen visits, we now needed to actually talk to each other about things that used to be routine. When I was a kid growing up with five other children under one roof, there was a rule that before we took a long shower, we had to ask everyone in the house if they needed to use the bathroom first. My husband and I adapted that for ourselves. Now Saul announces when he is going to be intensely focused in the kitchen, giving me a chance to grab snacks beforehand. And I vacate my “office” on Wednesdays and Sundays, so he can use it again to make art.

Both of us are being forced to reassess and reevaluate everything we took for granted. And we are well aware of the very real problems happening in the world outside our cocoon. Each day in this new reality, when we hit a roadblock with ourselves and each other, we are doing our best to take a breath and try to figure out a healthy way through it together.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman lives in Lambertville NJ. He enjoys snacking only at 1:15 and 3:25 every day unless he asks for permission two hours beforehand. For now, he is married.

IT’S MY BIRTHDAY.  DON’T TOUCH ME         

Celebrating Life During a Worldwide Quarantine

I have always been notorious for being difficult on my birthday.    I love attention, but I hate attention that is mandated.  On your birthday, people feel like they have to be nice.  There is nothing you’ve done to achieve it except being born.  Other Aries understand this.   If you have not earned people’s praise, it is not to be trusted.

Usually on my birthday I duck office cupcake parties like they are the plague (sorry for the untimely simile), and I am nasty and hostile to people who try to do nice things for me.  Then at the end of the day, I am hurt nobody did much for my birthday.    I’m pretty sure this personality quirk broke up my first relationship.   And now I notice my husband Saul gets visibly anxious around mid-March.   I don’t think it’s the only Ides he is bewaring of.

But how the hell does one prepare for this year?

When this quarantine began, there was a spirit of adventure among everyone.

Zoom meetings?     Yea!  

 I’m going to wear sweats and gain weight eating whatever I want!!   Wee!

But as this goes on for the foreseeable future, a new feeling seems to be creeping in..at least for me.  And I think that feeling is grief.

It’s not just for the loss of actual lives.  There is that.  But it’s also the loss of everyday habits and routines and, most of all, the loss of contact with people.

That has a big revelation for someone who is an introvert at heart.

I miss things like my daily coffee break —no matter what—with my dear friend and coworker Sara.  It’s the one moment in our often-hectic workday that we guard with our lives.  We walk a block to get coffee or tea and check in on each other.  When we began this ritual ten years ago, we often worried about whether we’d ever stop dating the wrong guys and getting our hopes dashed.  Now we are both married to good guys, and Sara has two wonderful kids.

And I miss my friends Jose and Will and our frequent forays to Broadway. Everyone has that thing they spend more money on that they should– sports events or shoes or tigers—our thing is Broadway shows.   I have also lured Saul into this thespian cult.   It took him awhile to drink the Bernadette-Peters-flavored Kool-Aid, but he finally (though still reluctantly) sips it.   I even miss our drives into NYC to see a play with Saul grouchily predicting that it is going to be awful and boring.  He does this before every single play even though he is wrong at least 8 times of 10. (Saul will dispute this but it’s my birthday, so you have to take my side).

I miss weekend gatherings with friends’ even though I always got terrible social anxiety before each and every one.

I DON’T miss riding a crowded bus to work.  Check back with me on that one in a few months.

Like many people, I’m no stranger to birthday grief.    I remember the sharp pain of my first birthday after I lost my big sister.    I still can’t believe I’ve now experienced more years of life than she did.  And there were so many others where I beat myself up because I still was single or hadn’t written that book or had no money or was floundering in my career.    Birthdays felt like a report card on my life instead of a celebration of life itself.

On top of all that, I was superstitious.  I had read Shirley McLane meditated on the exact hour of her birth each year and set her intentions for the 365 days ahead.   One time she envisioned winning an Academy Award and she did!    Since reading that, I’ve doggedly got up for the exact hour of my birth (6:20 AM) and meditated and set intentions for my coming year.   When I moved to LA I got up and drove an hour and a half to the ocean making sure to be sitting on the beach at that exact magic 6:20 AM hour.  I set some awesome intentions that year.   I was going to make Shirley look like an underachiever!  Then I realized that since I was born in Ohio and I was sitting on a west coast beach with a three-hour time change, I actually should have been there at 3:20 AM.  I had missed the magic hour completely and the sand in my underwear was all for naught.

This year I’m back in the right time zone but somehow missed my appointed intention-setting time again.  I basically had one thing to do today—get up at 6:15—but somehow set my phone alarm wrong.

So even though I probably missed my chance, I will tell you what my intention was for the year.

ENJOY HUMAN CONTACT— even though it is messy and irritating and unpredictable and anxiety-inducing.

Enjoy the run-ins and the scuffles and the people sitting too close and doing all the wrong things.

Enjoy the hand-holding and the hugs and the bemused smiles as people look in my eyes, and the small kindnesses and the holding of doors and the picking up of something I dropped.

Enjoy the idle gossip and the  laughing together at the absurdity of it all.

Enjoy people taking bites of my food and chewing too loudly too close to me and people interrupting me when I’m trying to write (like my husband just did a few minutes ago).

Enjoy it all.

Okay…I got carried away.

NO ONE  has to enjoy people chewing too loudly.   We are not animals.  We must still maintain a civilized society.

But other than that, this is my birthday wish.   Even if I will still have to take breaks from socializing every once in a while to recharge, and even though I am pretty sure I will still get that familiar  anxiety once I’m out and about in the world again, I want fully to enjoy as much as I possibly can the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of sharing this planet  with other glorious human beings

ABOUT THE AUTOR:   Keith Hoffman was going to win the Pulitzer Prize this year, but he overslept this morning.

 

 

 

 

 

Start A Writers Group Without Leaving Your Front Door

Virtual meetings are for more than working from home

One of the very best things I did to finally finish my book was start my own writing group but it happened pretty much by accident.

Enforced inspiration

Five years ago my company held a creative offsite. For those who have never worked in the corporate world, offsites are these odd things where you are forced to travel outside your office and comfort zone with your coworkers and prompted to do unnatural things in the name of team building and innovative thinking. You have to solve a puzzle with Janice from Accounting and Greg from Research Analytics (people from Research Analytics are always annoyingly good at solving puzzles) or write three ideas to move your brand forward using your left hand and an orange crayon. I loathe creative offsites. It feels like enforced creativity. I dislike them as much as work Happy Hours which feel like enforced fun. I guess like many writers, I am a loner at heart.

We ended this particular offsite by sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor taking turns announcing one way we could “improve creativity in the workplace”. Ugh.

Yelling “pass” didn’t seem like an option. I had to come up with something. I had been wanting to join a writers’ group to force myself to finish my book for some time and had been looking for just the right teacher who would guide me to that perfect best-seller. I was pretty sure there was no such person at my workplace, but when my turn came that was the idea that popped out of my mouth.

“We could order a pizza and meet in the 8th Floor conference room once a month at 6:00 pm and read out loud the pieces we’ve written. I mean…that is…if anyone is interested.” I said this as if I had been thinking about this idea for more than five minutes.

The response from the group was huge. Sign me up! That would be great! Please start one! I assumed the big reaction was the result of me mentioning pizza, and was pretty sure it would be forgotten the minute the offsite was over and we returned to our normal work lives.

A budding Proust snacking on a madeleine in the next cubicle?

But the interest wouldn’t go away. I was reminded weekly by at least one person that they couldn’t wait for me to start that writing group. Finally, after some nudging from my boss: “Those kinds of innovative actions are looked at favorably during promotion time, I sent out a mass work email, found a place that delivered pizza and moved the lava lamp from my desk to the 8th floor conference room one Wednesday evening after work. The first meeting was huge. Who knew there were so many secret writers in my office? We had to rush through each person to get everyone home before midnight. But soon the novelty wore off and the group was whittled down to six dedicated writers. They worked in every department — from people in creative fields to those who were executive assistants — but each person who ended up staying was a talented writer with a unique voice.

Since the group met after work, we felt safe reading personal things, and I reminded everyone that what was read and said in the group stayed in the group. Over time, we shared our stories and our lives and got to know each other far more deeply than we had working side by side all those years. One production manager who lost her husband to alcoholism wrote a piece on addiction that was more powerful and insightful than anything I’ve read before or since. The shy tape librarian who had initially been reticent to join us started a book that eventually got published. It’s called Don’t Get Too Excited because that was what she would say to us every session before reluctantly reading one of her brilliant stories. Eventually our work group staged a public reading at our boss’ apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan twice a year that became a popular and anticipated event.

Light a fire

Our group lasted almost five years until corporate restructuring laid off many of the members. By that time, I had learned that you don’t have to wait for someone else to start the perfect group. I started a new one with my neighbors in the small town of New Hope, PA. We meet in the back room of Farley’s, the local bookstore, (which they let us have for free) and it is still going strong today. We’ve also had a public reading of our work and asked people to buy a book from Farley’s as the price of admission. I am constantly reminded that these groups are an age-old tradition that started with telling stories around the fire. The more you tell your stories, the better you get at it. And all I had to do was create a safe space for those two hours we met.

Your computer can be for more than writing

But there are several reasons people can’t come together to meet as a group. There may not be an affordable distraction-free space. Coffee shops can be loud and unpredictable. Or someone may have a physical disability that makes mobility challenging. Maybe you don’t know any writers in your town or live in a remote area or just can’t be away from home for long. Perhaps you are looking for a group of very specific writers — mystery or romance novelist or cookbook creators— and there aren’t enough of you in close proximity. Or maybe you already have a wonderful group of writing friends, but they live in other parts of the world.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime workshop with memoirist Mary Karr in Greece. A bunch of us who attended would meet between Mary’s sessions forming an impromptu session where we read our own work to each other. After we returned home from that workshop, we tried to keep up the strong connection we had formed. We made audio files of our work and emailed them to each other. Everyone tried to listen to the files and reply with their thoughts, but something got lost in the distance and mechanics of it all. I discovered if I didn’t schedule time to listen each week, I just never got to it. Life had a way of interfering.

But in the last couple of years, technology has been able to bring humans closer. More people work from home because and Zoom or Skype into meetings. Why can’t we do the same with writing groups?

The rules don’t change: Bring work to the group no more than a certain length (I learned from a mentor that 7 pages is optimal), keep comments constructive, and make a commitment to show up. Instead of printing out copies, you can email your work beforehand. As far as I can tell, the benefits are still the same. There is something about reading your work out loud that is informative and illuminating. And there is nothing that gets one motivated like having a deadline

If you have wanted to be part of a writer’s group, now is a great time to start.  Email five to seven writers you’d like to work with, and set up a time where you meet for a couple hours each week or every two weeks once a month and download Zoom on your computer (this is the most challenging part for people like me—but I swear if I can do it, you can do it too).

Put on sweats, order pizza, pour some seltzer or a little wine since you don’t have to drive anywhere and…viola!  Of course, you still have to write something between group meetings.  That part technology hasn’t figured out yet.

Who is on your fantasy writing team?   Today is as good as any to send out a first email asking someone if they might be interested.  Don’t make the mistake I did and wait for a creative offsite to force you to take that first step.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:   Keith Hoffman is currently using his innovative thinking skills  to figure out how to conduct all of his human exchanges through zoom.  

DO’S AND DON’TS OF STAYING SANE WHEN THE WORLD’S GONE CRAZY

It’s Day 4 since a National Emergency was declared and I’m already going nuts.  I would clearly not do well in prison or  a hostage situation.

In just one week’s time, all of our worlds have gone topsy-turvy. And like everyone else, I’m trying to navigate an abnormal normal

It all happened so fast. A few weeks ago, I was so naive that I thought coronavirus was two words. I went to large gatherings, flew on planes, incessantly touched my face and washed my hands a mere fifteen seconds. When someone next to me on the bus sneezed, I simply glared at them instead of reporting them to the CDC. Sure, the media talked about it a lot, but I was used to those fake predictions that never materialized: Killer storms…Mexican caravans storming our borders…a women president. I thought we would eventually add Coronavirus to that list.

But before I knew it, flights were cancelled, conferences shut down and I was ordered to work from home. And I am overwhelmed thinking about the people who are losing their jobs, and their income and their businesses. Everything feels frightening and sad. The territory is new. It’s like we’re Googling our brains for a similar event in our lifetime and coming up with nothing.

So how do we all get through this? Well, I’m as much of an expert as the rest of you which means I’m not one at all, but I’ve to come up with a few DO and DON’TS that will hopefully help.

DON’TS

DON’T post on social media that you are in a crowded bar or restaurant with quotes like “No Corona for me but how about a margarita??” (Yes, I actually saw this.) I know in your probably drunken head you think you are sounding fearless but you actually sound kind of idiotic and possibly alcoholic. Be a good member of the community and keep your distance from the rest of us.

DON’T use the hashtags #BoomerDoomer or “BoomerRemover when talking about the virus. It’s just tacky and you may feel a tiny bit guilty if your grandparent or parent dies. Look, I’m not quite a Boomer (I say this trying not to sound defensive—BUT CHECK THE DATES ON MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE AGAINST THE DATES OF THE BOOMER GENERATION IN WIKIPEDIA), but I did spend the 80’s marching in the streets and attending protests while the government ignored AIDS and my friends died. A lot of those who died were Boomers. So, let’s give the still-living Boomers a break. They’ve already had their plague. And here is another tip I learned from Anne Lamott: Flirt with Old People. Try it. It’s actually quite fun. Everyone feels good after a little harmless flirting. #HeeeeyBoomer

DON’T say to your spouse, significant other, child or roommate “Oh my God. I can’t do this. I can’t spend another minute cooped up with you. I feel like I’m being strangled. I’m suffocating.” Especially when its only the first day of ‘social isolation’. Statements like that are best left written in a journal or communicated to a therapist via skype. On the other hand, I have found Saul gets equally upset when I excitedly say things like “Wow, all this time at home really gives us a chance to talk a lot about our feelings!” That makes him cringe and nervously touch his face with his hands. And one last relationship tip: Before blurting out “During this pandemic, let’s agree on no more sex outside of the marriage,” you might want to double-check that ‘sex outside of the marriage’ was actually allowed before the pandemic. Things could get awkward.

DON’T touch other people’s faces unless you are Helen Keller.

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DO’S

DO order take out–or if that makes you nervous–buy gift certificates from your local favorite restaurants or business. I get it. I am also nervous about eating outside my home. But then I think of Janice and Mae, the waiters at Ota-Ya, the Japanese restaurant down the block who know my husband and I so well. They always greet us with, “Hi Saul. Hi Keith. The usual?” And just a few buildings from them, we’ve excitedly watched Meta Café, the small neighborhood breakfast and lunch place, grow and become successful. We often bring the owner and her staff some of Saul’s baked goods as a snack. Those people are the heart of our community and I want to support them even if it means pushing past my urge to hoard money in case everything goes bust.

DO donate to the arts. If tickets are cancelled and you can afford it,  think about donating the money instead of asking for a refund. I remind myself of all the joy theatre brought into my life. For me it’s theatre. Think about what has brought joy into your life and how you can support it even a little during these weird times.

DO spend more time giving your pets extra love. This is the time to cash in on all those hours they hung out by themselves waiting for you to come home. Saul is doing his part.

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DO read a non-virtual book. Maybe you have an old favorite sitting on your bookshelf that you read years ago and loved. You don’t have to lug it anywhere so you can take the time to read something with real pages made out of paper. Currently I’m re-reading Bleak House, Lauren Bacall’s memoir, a book about Broadway and Andy Warhol’s diary. If you drew a map of my brain and what usually goes on in it, I suspect it would look pretty much like those books.

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DO try to find humor in all this. It’s tricky. Especially on Social Media. A few months ago, I posted a picture of a mom peering into her kitchen oven holding her innocent-looking boy saying, “Your sister didn’t pick up her toys and now look at her.” I found it hilarious as did many of my friends, but one person accused me of mocking Jews in the Holocaust. That was the last thing on my mind, and I was offended he would think that, but when I tried to explain… “See, it’s funny because the mom is so calm as she shows her son his little sister burning…” well, it was a losing argument. I’ve always enjoyed dark humor. Three days after my sister died, my brother and I had to go around and run errands for our mom and discovered we couldn’t get through a simple encounter such as getting an extra house key made without one of us blurting out that our sister had just died. We would get back in our car and burst out laughing over our lack of impulse control. It is still makes me laugh to think about it, but others may not quite understand. So with humor on social media, I try my best to go by the rule of not mocking anyone but myself…and maybe a fictional little girl who didn’t pick up her toys.

DO Facetime. Seeing someone’s face makes a lot of difference. But please wear pants. You would be amazed how easily you forgot you are in your underwear. One slip of the phone angle….

DO keep to a routine. I’ve been setting my alarm, getting up early, showering and dressing It keeps me feeling more grounded and helps me to remember to put on those pesky pants.

DO be safe! And be kind when you can. And send me some of your idea for staying sane.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is NOT a boomer. But he does enjoy if you flirt  with or without your pants on.

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