In the latest 99% Invisible podcast episode, host Roman Mars acknowledges the strange new world of self-quarantining with a tranquil ode to the little-known stories behind the ordinary objects in our homes.
He tells listeners about the historical connotations between windows and wealth, the cultural associations between fans and death, and the rise and fall of the hall.
And then, as the episode rolls into its credits, the Beauty Pill song “Exit Without Saving” plays, repeating the chorus “you recognize that this is noise, right?” over and over.
The combination of that line, its slightly eerie tone and cadence, and the truly unprecedented happenings and emotional states of the last week or two, ignited something inside me.
It felt like a chemical reaction, or perhaps a spiritual revelation. The lyric plugged into an open socket, and suddenly I had a moment of clarity that came with a slight chill.
So much of the news around COVID-19 has been constant unimportant chatter spurred by the 24 hour news cycle and the endlessness of social media feeds. I recognize that a lot of it is noise, yet it can be hard to look away.
At the same time, the response to COVID-19 – namely, self-quarantining and social distancing – has revealed the noisiness of life before the pandemic.
My (previous) life’s noise was the constant pressure to 1) achieve career ambitions; 2) dedicate myself to my partner; 3) build local friendships and 4) maintain long-distance connections; 5) learn new work skills and 6) expand my professional network; 7) adhere to a consistent exercise routine; 8) plan healthy and sustainable meals; and 9) take care of the house. Oh, and 10) be cool with failing to perfectly balance everything because I also need to 11) be a good feminist.
It’s only through the absence of externally-dictated schedules that I’ve discovered how wildly overwhelmed I felt by all of those things.
A month ago, “You recognize that this is noise, right?” is a phrase I could’ve heard but not felt. I hadn’t yet had the time or space or context to consider my choices in that way.
Obviously the coronavirus is not all smiles and sunflowers. I admit that I have great privilege in seeing the virus as an opportunity for recovery and self-reflection rather than as doomsday.
But COVID-19 does present what all design thinkers espouse as the #1 driver of creative greatness: constraints.
Due to our current constraints, artists will explore new mediums or use their scraps in unusual ways.
Distant lovers will get to know each other through the Netflix Party Chrome extension, living room picnics over Zoom, or FaceTime book clubs that bring them closer despite being held apart.
Gym rats will discover the powerful resistance of their own bodyweight.
New home cooks will emerge, and seasoned ones will try new ingredients (I myself have made a few things for the first time, including beet greens, cornbread, and lemon bars).
Podcasts and talk shows will try new lo-fi at-home formats, and they might end producing our all-time favorite episodes, like the one that spurred this letter.
We all, I hope, will recognize what is noise, and which signals most potently drown it out.
During this strange time, I’ve been focusing on a few things most strongly: opening the blinds in the morning, checking in with friends regularly, stretching both my literal and creative muscles, and taking periodic work breaks just to hug my fiancé Harsh.
Turns out these things are signals, and they’re all pretty good at dampening the noise.