OP-EDS

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April 1, 2020

Under Quarantine, Embrace the "B" Stories

As the coronavirus pandemic dominates the news and our minds, we should look to little things for temporary relief.

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Jessica Xia / The Chicago Maroon

I saw a seagull peck at some Harold’s chicken in an empty parking lot, and it was the most exciting thing I had seen in days. This was my first time leaving the house in a week. I could tell it was a first for several of my fellow customers, too. The shoppers I saw in Hyde Park Produce were cautious; their prying eyes checked for distance while almost closing it with the intensity of their gazes. Somehow, every single person shared an expression of a peculiar mixture of caution and curiosity. I kept my hands in my pockets; I touched little, especially not my face. I avoided aloof-looking children; I grabbed my cilantro, broccoli, my pecans, and my lettuce. I went about business as usual, and I could only think about that seagull pecking at the chicken in the parking lot. 

Normally, we don’t think all that much about the little things that happen on a day-to-day basis. Strange things are common and numerous, and remembering any given one for a long time isn’t even worth the energy. After all, so much else is going on and, more importantly, there is so much more to come. I don’t focus quite as much on Monday when I know Tuesday is likely to come. But right now, in a time where the novel coronavirus dominates almost every facet of our lives, it is even more important than usual to treasure the little things that happen each day. 

Normally, we focus on the main events. We want to think about the big moments that have come and are to come soon. We think about that test we might fail, those job interviews we desperately hope we make strong impressions in, those dates that hopefully go more pleasantly than poorly. We focus on the exciting or high-impact cores of our personal narratives. A movie director might call these main plotlines “A” stories—something that drives protagonists forward toward action. In most films, the “B” story is almost a faint murmur to the roar of the “A.” Some recognizable examples for our generation are the antics of the squirrel in Ice Age, much of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s investigations in the Star Wars prequels, or even the hilarious dynamic between Frozone and his wife in The Incredibles

Usually it offers a break from the excitement or a bit of comic relief. Sometimes though, the “B” story is the only reason the “A” story works. That ostensibly useless interaction off the beaten path ends up being the only reason the main path is clear. That side character you spoke to in a video game ends up being your only point of passage through a dangerous situation. That friend from your house who you haven’t spoken to in years becomes a quarantine confidant, or someone you mostly know from an RSO becomes someone you can exercise with from afar to stay sane. 

We rely on the “B” story to make sure our main paths make sense. Without them, we can’t engage in the most important aspects of our lives. Even more, absent embracing those side interactions on a day-to-day basis, we risk becoming so disconnected from the world around us that even an exciting main plot feels formless, or not worth seeing through. Monotony is poison even when the repeating action is gold. 

Right now, the novel coronavirus is the world’s “A” story in a way quite unlike most of the usual “A” stories we experience. In school, at work, during life, or within our personal relationships, the “A” story is broad, but it’s also flexible. Yes, college is continuous, and class happens weekly, but the classes are different. There is some built-in variety that makes the process less monotonous even if it is constant. The “B” stories matter a bit less when the “A” story is fresh and exhilarating. The ways in which our side arcs blend into the main ones are obscured by the variability of the main ones in the first place. 

This is obviously a very different time. Today’s “A” story, a pandemic, keeps us in our houses, away from people. It leads us to desperately try to recreate the main cores of our lives not lost to us. In the absence of parties with friends, we drink wine over a video call, alone but together. We text constantly, and some have even taken to creating their favorite campus hangouts in creative video games like Minecraft or Animal Crossing.

Recently, the highlights of my day have often been the “B” stories that distract me, even for a moment, from the main happenings of the world. I will never truly forget the virus, nor the disaster it has caused, but I am incredibly thankful to have the privilege to distract myself from it and surrender to the strange events that I normally see as disturbances. The five wasted minutes of a work meeting just talking about nonsense start to amount to some of the most meaningful interactions of a week, and I don’t feel quite as driven to maximize every single moment when there is suddenly much more time available. 

It can be quite easy to focus on the main things happening in your life. I won’t lie and say I haven’t fallen prey to the quicksand that is coronavirus news. Under normal circumstances, it is the little pauses in the story that keep us from losing sight of ourselves. We don’t always notice them, but they are incredibly important. 

As we move past the current crisis, or even stay in it, we have to internalize every part of our own narratives. While this isn’t the ideal setting for it, now is the perfect time to recognize and isolate your subplots. It is an incredible opportunity to force yourself to understand what your “B” stories are or need to be. 

What’s important now is to find little moments and protect them. Have your annoying conversations. Stand in a backyard (though perhaps not in groups!) and notice the strange smells of your neighbors attempting to learn to cook. Watch that new show that Netflix insists you have a 98 percent chance of loving. Stub your toe and laugh about it. Watch a bird eat Harold’s and think about it days later. Break up the massive monotony of the world. Just like in your normal life, your “B” stories will be what makes the “A” work out splendidly. Sometimes, you just have to let them. 
 

Jay Gibbs is a fourth-year in the College.

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