Photo credit: Abigail Rollins
Photo credit: Abigail Rollins

The Route to Normalcy

By Abigail Rollins

After over six months inside, it would seem I am pretty settled in my new routine.  I start up my busted coffee maker, close my eyes, and let its shrill screech resonate in the depths of my soul. I sit down at my computer with mug in hand, and stare with unfocused eyes at a beige wall until it’s time for the first class of the day. Bleak, I know. While that’s a surefire way to kill time and brain cells, I think I may have finally found a way to break from this monotonous quarantine student grind, and feel almost kind of normal again.

I have been taking a lot of aimless drives these days. In the absence of a commute to Long Beach, I missed listening to whole albums uninterrupted in traffic. That said, a lot of music reminds me so much of The Before Time now that I just get super bummed. So, when I don’t want to spend entire drives in my feelings, I opt for podcasts.

Besides not pulling too hard on my heartstrings, part of what I find so appealing about podcasts in this time is that they give me the feeling of being social without actually saying anything at all. The pressure to fill any awkward silence with a fun story or meaningful response is completely off my shoulders. All I have to do is listen. The same can’t be said of Zoom sessions or phone calls with friends, during which I spend more time thinking of something– dear god, anything remotely intelligent– than actually paying attention to what’s being said. And the thing is, I really miss having quality conversations.

I think this year has just made me forget how to talk to people. It might be that day-to-day conversations are just awful now because of, you know, all the bad news all the time, but I would guess that being cut off from the outside world has something to do with it too. I have to really go out of my way to talk to somebody now, and there’s a strong chance both of us will be out of practice and lost for words. With podcasts, I get to listen in on any number of conversations with professional talkers. This is what they’re paid for! And they’re good at it! And I can learn from them! Quietly! Plus, they provide a huge range of conversation topics to choose from.

If I feel like being a culture nerd, I can turn to “You’re Wrong About” by Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, and become my friend group’s leading expert on the OJ Simpson trial, Tonya Harding, how the Challenger explosion was totally and completely avoidable, as well as a bunch of other culturally misremembered scandals we late 90’s babies missed out on. If I need a laugh, I can listen to comedian Nicole Byer, the host of five wildly funny podcasts on topics ranging from why she’s never had a boyfriend to watching the Lord of The Rings movies for the first time at age 34. Time I spend driving around and listening to others’ stories feels like a sort of quasi-escapism from harsh realities of quarantine and the world. Unless I’m listening to “Behind the Bastards,” in which case I listen to host Robert Evans go into detail about the very worst people in history, some of whom are very much alive and still doing just so many bad things. Notable subjects include Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Manafort, and American police. It’s not the happiest subject matter, I know, but these stories are essential to making sense of the present climate.

Podcasts facilitate a kind of conversation in which ideas are tossed back and forth, explored in depth, and looked at from a variety of perspectives. To me, it mimics the kind of discussions I used to have in class– open conversations in which a story is told and stray observations turn to group analyses. It’s the kind of talk that’s absent from Zoom sessions and 250 word discussion boards, which typically see bare minimum participation and insufficient time to explore topics with depth. My podcast drives have given me extended time to engage with enthusiastic discussions and reactivate that part of my brain that’s felt pretty dormant since March.

Feeling burnt out from the grind of online school is perfectly understandable. This is a truly wild time to be alive, and there is no end in sight. In the absence of sufficient hope for the future, I opt to have a hope for the time being– that we all find ways to safely wander away from routine and get a chance to really listen, learn, laugh, and kill all this uncertain time.