On a muggy morning about 10 days into social distancing, my wife texted a WhatsApp group of fellow neighborhood moms she very loosely knows. She asked if anyone would like us to schlepp over to their house with our three young children, stand in the street at an appropriate distance, and sing kid songs with my guitar and some toy instruments. A few said, “Yes, come on over.”
So we schlepped, stopping for a middle-of-the-road performance on the way to the first house. We played music for families I had never met. The last kid wanted Christmas songs, so we did “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman.” Would we have ever done this in typical circumstances? Haha. No. But in our family, we have entered a stage of the pandemic my wife is calling, “Why the hell not (WTHN)?”
WTHN? is usable in a wide range of circumstances:
- The kids ask for an extra brownie: WTHN?
- Something happens at work my wife would usually let slip by but she decides to speak up: WTHN?
- FaceTiming a random friend at a random time without setting it up beforehand: WTHN?
(WTHN? is NOT for use if you’re considering flouting social distancing or public health guidelines. Just stay at home as much as possible and use WTHN? from there.)
WTHN? might seem like we’re giving up: If the world is ending anyway, why bother caring? In our house, though, it’s an expression of authentic freedom emerging from this awful, messed-up time. So much of what we could count on — schools being open and childcare providers available, leaving the house for work, baseball starting, taking kids to the playground to enjoy the warmer weather — is shot for now. We had been reliant on routines without needing to evaluate them, and now that a lot of the routines are gone, the seismic upending has made us evaluate all kinds of habits and preconceptions. This time demands maximum flexibility and reevaluating ways of doing things, and it’s happening everywhere. For instance, my wife and her work colleagues would NEVER have held babies during a work video call before. Now? A bunch of people are doing it and it’s fine. WTHN?
I should note that WTHN? is only possible thanks to our family’s massive privilege. My wife and I have jobs that allow for remote work and provide steady pay. We are healthy (so far). We have a comfortable home with a nice yard for our kids to play in and the happy sort of neighborhood that is open to curbside singalongs. It’s only the privileges of our context that allow us to practice WTHN?
I’m wary of sharing these reflections at all because no new creativity or freedom from routine is even remotely worth the destruction of this pandemic. I’d much rather have no pandemic and no story to write about WTHN? than what we are facing, obviously. But I do think it’s interesting to observe that in our family’s navigation through this time so far, we have been acting differently in ways I might not have expected — we who are known for plans and checklists and firm “one brownie max, kid” policies.
A question that has popped up after a bit of living the WTHN? life is “Why haven’t we done any of this before?” Why not regularly video chat with more people instead of just texting them? Why not be more neighborly? I think the restrictions themselves facilitate this type of freedom, however backwards that might sound.
In an episode of his great podcast “Cautionary Tales,” Tim Harford talks about the creative freedom that can arise from unexpected restrictions. For instance, the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett almost bailed on a solo performance one night in Munich because the piano the theater had given him was badly damaged, the upper keys barely sounding at all. If he had any say in it, he would’ve junked the instrument and replaced it. But there wasn’t enough time to find a replacement, and Jarrett was a good sport and played the show anyway. He improvised within these unexpected constraints and ended up performing a brilliant concert that became the best-selling solo jazz album of all time. Jarrett wouldn’t have said WTHN? on a normal night, but that night in Germany wasn’t normal at all.
I wonder if WTHN? will persist in our family when the pandemic is over, whenever that time comes and whatever damage it leaves in its wake. In that same podcast episode, Harford shares a story about London commuters forced to use new subway routes when a popular line was closed for repairs. Many returned to their old ways when the suspended line was reopened, but many didn’t — they found a better way of getting to work they never would’ve discovered without restrictions. I imagine we’ll go back to our old habits, but I hope the uptightness or general daze of everyday life that kept us from saying “Why the hell not?” more often doesn’t return.