Finding the humor at the end of the world
Stephanie Hayes looks back at living through a pandemic.
Eric Rodriguez, co-owner of Disinfectant Firm, disinfects a map of Florida at The Galley in St. Petersburg on June 24, 2020.
Eric Rodriguez, co-owner of Disinfectant Firm, disinfects a map of Florida at The Galley in St. Petersburg on June 24, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Dec. 18, 2020

When putting this together, I realized something.

This recap sounds like a dystopian novel, bananas, impossible just a year ago. Masks? Cardboard sports fans? No Disney? There were so many moments of disconnect from the reality we knew, and, let’s face it, took for granted before March.

Joke’s on me! That’s the month I started as a humor columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. Nothing says “comedy” like a rapidly spreading pandemic. You know, supervirus and seltzer down the pants, etcetera.

I remember my last day in the newsroom. I was still an editor. We sent reporters around to suss out details of the first local cases of COVID-19. It seemed like a busy news day.

It never stopped. To find a positive case anywhere now, you need only open your eyes. We work from home these days, and I haven’t seen those colleagues in months.

Untold others have not stopped either, from hospital workers to educators to delivery people. The stress and sadness have been insurmountable. Everyone is looking forward to 2021, probably a little too much. I hate to break it to you, but Skittles will not fall from the sky at the stroke of midnight.

My role, other than cowering in the corner of the kitchen in yoga pants, has been to seek what we have in common, more than what we don’t. And to find some way to laugh through it.

I know you want to hear more about division and the election, but I’m going to recap the year through this lens: What was it like to live through a pandemic?

When everything shut down in Florida, even walking felt terrifying. DROPLETS! Masks were not yet mainstream. If someone jogged by and hit us with a DROPLET, it was game over.

We got on Zoom, FaceTime and Microsoft Teams for work and appointments and happy hours. Some mastered it, but others, unbelievably, still do not know how to mute during a baby shower.

We struggled to exercise at home. We played board games. We asked Amazon’s Alexa the deep questions. We enjoyed a glimpse into each other’s homes on social media. We found joy in small things, thinking this would all be wrapped up real soon.

Then Publix put down the one-way arrows, and things got real. We were going to be here for a while. To feel grounded, we adopted pandemic dogs that now think humans never leave the house and exist only! For! Them!

In May, Florida started to reopen and never stopped. Local businesses fought to hold on. Some big chains didn’t even make it. Sweet Tomatoes closed. And Chuck E. Cheese’s scandalously started delivering pizza under a different name. Nice hustle, Charles.

Some of us tried drive-ins, outdoors activities and remaining “socially distant,” a pairing of words pleasant as “moist towelette.” Some got right back to belly slams in enclosed spaces.

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Research showed that wearing a piece of facial fabric would cut down on sickness and death. So naturally, we decided to politicize that. Another study found that Americans were the unhappiest they had been in 50 years, and I can’t imagine why.

Halfway through the year, in my estimation, people collectively lost grip. Staring down the back half of 2020, folks became members of the Dead Poets Society, proclaiming we must LIVE or truly die.

Sports came back with cardboard us. Disney World reopened. We waded into a morass of Florida rules; bars must close, but restaurants serving booze could stay open since cheeseburgers were available. Bars scrambled to add Hot Pockets to menus. Everything made sense, all the time. To top if off, we microwaved library books.

Some of us took summer vacations, broadcasting it boldly or hiding it entirely. We sat in cars with our smelly families for nine hours and had “MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES.”

Then schools opened. Parents struggled to understand the “student pairing code” in Canvas. Teachers took their lives into their hands. Kids went back with masks, or they stayed home, bursting into workspaces for peanut butter twice a day.

We ordered weird stuff on the internet. Primarily, we ordered bidets. Later, we realized we had to sell everything in pandemic garage sales.

We came to terms with death. We relearned to communicate. We relaxed into a false sense of security, or maybe fatigue, and numbers surged again in time for the holidays.

Halloween was fun, since 2020 was ghoulish anyway. We handed out candy from driveway tables and invented tube slides. Thanksgiving came, and experts told us not to gather. Some did anyway. Some used this excuse for alone time.

Now Christmas and Hanukkah are here. We’re struggling to shop for each other (warm socks and therapy?). Too many are struggling to get by at all.

Some have not made it out. Those who did have shown who we truly are. At times, that has been a cruel vision.

The vaccine is here, but as many of us wait for our turns, it still feels far. Context helps. The Great Depression lasted 10 years. America fought in World War II for four years, and the pandemic of 1918 lasted almost two. We can hold on a few more months.

Then what? More sadness, more denial, possibly a return to pants. Some of that Dead Poets energy, some canceled plans, a sprinkle of cynicism, a dash of optimism.

And the humor? It’s there in the middle of that impossibly human cocktail, rising to the top in tiny, temporary bubbles of relief.

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