It’s the first of June, which means, according to our governor, the state is ready to be “back to normal.” In fact, we’ve had a slow return to normalcy over the last four-to-six weeks, with increasingly relaxed rules and restrictions in close relationship with the CDC’s guidance. So, in our state, the shock of an overnight change should be much less severe than it has been in other places. This is all good news, right? Returning to normal is something we should strive for, or at least that’s been the suggestion. But if you’re someone like me, this might not be as exciting as it sounds. Let me try to explain.
On February 6th, 1963, an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show titled “It May Look Like a Walnut*” aired for the first time. The episode opens with Rob and Laura Petrie in bed, watching an episode of some Twilight Zone-esque show. It’s a kind of body-snatcher plot, where an alien who is determined to keep human beings from exploring space comes to earth and begins to slowly take over their bodies through an ingenious method of implanting bits of his own essence inside of walnuts, which are then shipped around the world and sold through local markets and grocers. When a person cracks open the walnut, he or she becomes, well, biologically possessed by the alien Kolak—really, becoming Kolak. The human beings lose their thumbs, which prevents them from being mechanically able, and they lose their imaginations, which prevents them from thinking creatively, from dreaming, and (to Rob-the-comedy-writer’s extreme horror) from having a sense of humor. Oh, the Kolaks also grow an extra set of eyes in the back of their heads so that they can literally see anything that’s going on around them at any time.
Now, the actual Van Dyke episode after that initial opening sequence, where Rob tries to scare Laura, begins with Rob waking up in the morning to all sorts of strange, walnut-flavored circumstances and coincidences. At first, he imagines Laura must be playing a practical joke on him, simple spousal payback for his keeping her up all night with scary stories and bad dreams. But soon enough, as his day progresses, that seems less and less likely. How could Laura have gotten millions of walnuts from the market so early in the morning, by herself, and gotten them all back to the house, planted in various places? How could she convince their young son to get in on the joke and not spoil it? When did she find time to call both of his coworkers and his boss to join in the fun, as they do, and to get walnuts to them, too!? It’s impossible. So, eventually, what Rob first believes to be a practical joke becomes more and more insidious. Is it a dream he can’t wake from? Or is Kolak real, and really taking over the world?
This episode is a perfect metaphor for social anxiety.
As we all clamor excitedly for the great reopening of the world, and the return to normalcy, there’s understandable joy and expectation. But for some of us, there’s a real sense of dread, too. Like Rob among the walnuts, some of us feel constantly on edge in social situations. We feel, indeed, that even our family members and closest friends are intimidating, a challenge to be around. In these settings, we stumble without thumbs. Our imaginations have been drained away. At work, we feel trapped by common conversations that, for us, are extremely uncomfortable. Everywhere we go, there are Kolaks all around, with their four eyes constantly watching our every move. Are we saying the right thing? Sitting the right way? Was that joke too crass? Too dull? Is our laugh too loud? Am I wearing the right clothes for this occasion? Just like Rob, the longer the social situation endures, the more heightened our anxiety and near-panic becomes; and all of this is when we’re among friends, family, and colleagues! The horror of ending up in a room with total strangers, where we’re sat next to someone we don’t know and are expected to make small talk? Well, that’s just like Kolak walking into our office unexpectedly and presenting himself, unabashedly and nonchalantly, as the alien among us (except, in our case, he’s not played by the brilliant Danny Thomas). How the hell do we respond to that?
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Adam,” you’ll say, “you’re a teacher! How can you be anxious in social situations!?” Well, it’s true, I am surrounded by people in my normal working conditions, and I am in fact looking forward to getting back in the classroom with my students. But that’s different. For class, I am always prepared. I know exactly what topics need to be covered, how we’ll approach them, what questions are likely to be asked or need to be answered, who will be in the room and for how long. I am generally in control of those scenarios, even when things go unexpectedly, because ultimately that’s my class. This is not at all comparable to typical social situations where, at the drop of the hat, the topic of conversation can change, a new person can enter the room, or someone might decide it’s time to leave this one locale (where I’d just started to settle into the background!) for some new park, bar, or restaurant. There’s no preparing for that, and there’s nothing to do but try to blend in and put on that happy face.
So, as we reopen and return to “normal,” I’m left wondering, what’s so great about normal? For people like me, not much. It’s a challenge to get out there and participate in the social things—even if the idea of these reunions thrills me. I’m filled to burst with love for my friends and family, and I very much like the idea of being with them again. But the idea of something and the experience of it are not equivalent. Luckily, my husband, who experiences his own anxiety of a different kind, is extremely good in social situations. It comforts me to know that, if the time has come to recommence gatherings, social visits, and get-togethers of whatever type, then I’ll at least have someone with me who can talk to anyone about anything, for however long. He lets me off the hook. Bless him.
If you’re like me, a person who loves people but would much rather be by yourself, at home with your books, then I wish you well as we transition back to a daily life that was never easy for us to begin with. Be kind to yourself. Go slow. Breathe.
*Incidentally, this episode plays a prominent role in the recent Disney+/Marvel television series, WandaVision.
And a quick note on my reading in May: I posted some of my thoughts on my AAPI reads here, and a review of A.S. King’s Switch here. I also read Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist, Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Masque (a classic of Japanese gay fiction), and a re-read of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds (a poetry collection that I found to be just as brilliant this time through, though I learned even more upon a second reading.) That’s a total of eight books read in May.
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