As the lockdown unwinds in earnest (got my tickets to the zoo booked already) I got to thinking about all we’ve lost living such an atomised existence through the pandemic.
But this isn’t a paean to what we’ve missed. It’s a call to model something different so we can build back better.
I’ll take the incidents that inspired me in reverse order.
Driving at the weekend I unthinkingly moved my hand to check three things I no longer have to check in a modern car. Whilst driving my mum would automatically press her finger against the choke (yes, I’m old enough to remember when cars had a manual choke. My first car had one and I never did get the hang of it) then the gear stick then the hand brake. Choke in, in the right gear, handbrake off.
I do this too. Even though my current motor has no choke. Or hand brake. And it’s an automatic. Yet I still do it.
It’s one of those tiny inconsequential behaviours we imbibe from our parents. It’s not in the genes. It’s in spending so much time around the same people and learning from them.
I’m reminded of the iconic scene from the very excellent film Barcelona in which Chris Eigeman’s character Fred goes off on a tangent about which is the right way to shave. It’s apparently inconsequential but in fact it speaks to the atomised existence of families. The way we learn things from our parents and don’t question them.
But of course we expect to be influenced by our parents in ways big and small. And that process goes on through life. I didn’t copy my mum’s weird driving tick when I was small because I couldn’t drive. As soon as I passed my test I found myself doing it unconsciously as a safety step, or as a small way to maintain a connection to my mum as I grew away from her past 17 and the age of driving lessons?
For the past year and a bit the generations have been all but barred from mixing. How are folks my age now supposed to learn how to be old if we can’t be around older people?
And, our wider family too is not an unexpected influence. But measuring that influence. Clocking it is something else.
For example some years ago my cousin shared a video of her son opening his Easter eggs. By smacking his head into them. Strange behaviour on the face of it. On further inspection it’s not without merit. By cracking the egg in its foil you don’t lose crumbs all over the furniture.
Of course my children copied this method. Then I did. Then they got their uncle to do it for a particularly amusing family video. And the madness spread. Now, every year, my Facebook feed is filled with friends and relatives smacking Easter eggs off their foreheads. (The hollow kind, a creme egg would properly hurt).
Does it matter if no more people smash Easter eggs with their noggin? No. But these tiny interactions, sharing of quirks, building of culture and tradition make life richer and, fundamentally, better.
So there’s close family. There’s extended family. What about the person you haven’t seen in over 25 years?
I was recently reminded or Tori Amos. I liked her first few albums (I’ve always had a weakness for female singer songwriters from Carly Simon and Janis Ian to Beth Orton and Taylor Swift). Upon hearing one of her tunes on the radio I tootled off to Apple Music and put together a playlist of my favourite Tori Amos songs. The sad ones mainly. I’ve no time for the dancey aberration that is Professional Widow.
I called that playlist….Tori Anus.
Not (just) because I’m puerile. But because that’s how I’ve referred to her ever since I sat next to Sally Wilson in fifth form English. It was Sally that piqued my interest in Tori Amos, made me pick up Little Earthquakes in Boots (yes, they sold record in Boots. I don’t know why). And, let’s be honest what caught my attention was not just her raving about the music, it was that she called her Tori Anus.
Nearly 30 years since I was in that English class I’m still calling Tori Amos by a different name because it’s silly and, yes, puerile and it reminds me of being young I guess.
But my point is that I haven’t seen Sally Wilson in over a quarter of a century. Sorry, Sally, but I don’t really give you much thought (- and I’m sure you barely remember me.). Except for when Tori Amos comes on the radio. Or I decide to make a playlist of her songs.
Something fleeting and unimportant has had a remarkable longevity.
Again, those sort of tiny moments of richness have been absent from the lives of pupils who haven’t been able to go to school. How many other celebrities will never have rude words substituted into their name as a result?
And what of Tori Amos herself? No doubt Sally loved her because her music speaks to the experience of teenage girls. The fragility and strength, the potential and the insecurity and all the other myriad facets that make up teenage existence and can somehow magically be crammed into a four minute pop song or, at worst, the 45 minutes of bliss that is Little Earthquakes. Why did I like it?
On previous occasions when I’ve been asked on panels or podcasts why I’m a feminist I credit Alanis Morissette. Seeing her play T in the Park in 1997 triggered something in me. It was suddenly so obvious that the default was sweaty men moshing near the stage when girls and women surged forward as the first chords of You Oughta Know rang out. Women wanted to do the same stuff as the men. But they weren’t offered the opportunity or the role models.
But looking back now did Tori Amos plant that seed a few years earlier? Did she spark my interest in different stories, another perspective? Listening to Me and A Gun must have made me twig that contemporary depictions of gender relations like Basic Instinct were neither an accurate nor healthy.
So mum, my cousin’s son, Sally Wilson and Tori Amos have all influenced me in some way.
But it’s not a one way street.
We all make an impression when we meet someone. We all literally change people’s lives. In lockdown that’s been limited at best, and at worst that’s been the rationale behind staying at home. But now that society is opening up again opportunity knocks.
Tiny steps can make a big difference. Role modelling matters.
One of my particular areas of expertise is around the role of dads. It’s an area rich with examples of what I mean. If you, as a working dad, walk away from your workplace on time because you’ve got to collect your child from nursery someone will notice, respect that decision and seek to copy it. Curtailing a Zoom meeting because it’s time to get the kids tea on, might seem unimportant. But it will leave an impression with someone.
A little step can influence many people for a long time.
You can use that power to invert a rude version of a pop star’s name. Or you can model the change you want to see in workplace culture, online engagement or political best practice. Or you can do all of the above.
For no-one is insignificant when it comes to making change. We all impact others around us through our behaviour and the example we set. If we’re aware of that we can use it for good, one tiny change at a time as we try to build a new and better normal.