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Is there a word more abused than “humbled”? Lewis Hamilton used it recently upon equaling Michael Schumacher’s record of Formula One wins. Having historically distinguished himself in a rarefied field, Hamilton apparently felt a sudden sense of inferiority.
No, Lewis. Humbling is shitting yourself on a tram in the middle of Melbourne’s interminable Covid lockdown, not sitting astride the world, and I’m going to restore honour to the word by using it appropriately here. Lockdown has humbled me. How? By encouraging sustained exposure to my character flaws. Namely, a shamefully large reservoir of self-pity, irritability and impatience — and dangerous imperfection as a father.
Having long valued zestful, funny companionship, it’s become painfully clear to me that I’m as prone to spells of charmless irritability as anyone else. Amid the mental humidity of lockdown, these spells have become longer and more frequent, and my cat’s nightly habit of entangling himself in my feet as I walk now invariably triggers a long, fluent string of profanity which my partner has made clear is no longer acceptable since we brought a pair of impressionable young ears into this world. Regardless, every damn night cat Lincoln and I perform the same dance, cursed to repeat our worst instincts.
Then there’s my hair loss. For years, I’d encouraged friends to walk barefoot through the lush meadows of my scalp. I also believed — with exaggerated faith in my magnanimity — that if I ever went bald, I would accept the loss with good humour and perspective.
This was bullshit. Facing baldness, a few months ago I shaved my nut, expecting both emotional liberation and camouflage. I miscalculated. Shaving my head only pronounced the long, arid strips on my skull and has worsened my fixation with the whole thing. Now that it’s semi-grown out, my hair resembles the aftermath of a bad scrub-fire. What’s humbling is that I care.
Related to this, I think, is my recent compulsion to point people to the website of an American thinktank that defines the millennial generation as beginning in 1981 — the year of my birth. Recently terrified of ageing, and frequently mugged by nostalgia, I now cling pathetically to the millennial tag like a life-raft in bad waters.
What’s humbling is being starved of contact during the World’s Longest Lockdown(TM), and depending upon a sullen shopkeeper for human warmth. Specifically, a man who radiates hostile indifference and has promiscuously plastered his shop with misspelt and passive-aggressive notes to customers. But my soul is parched so I persevere, often forcing conversation by pointing to the stack of newspapers beside the till, and murmuring about their front pages.
“How about this stagnant wage growth?” I say, shaking my head despairingly.
“Thank you,” he says emphatically, marking the end of our symposium.
I will try again tomorrow.
There are humbling problems with other forms of communication. Masks have badly constrained non-verbal expression, normally useful for when you cross paths with a neighbour. For Australians who aren’t permanently masked, let me tell you that it’s very hard to communicate your sense of despair and spiritual decay merely by squinting or manipulating the crinkles around your eyes.
Impossible, actually. As a species, we haven’t developed this ability, but perhaps with enough time Melburnians will — as blindness may enhance hearing, so too might masks enhance the expressiveness of our crow’s feet.
The lockdown has also coincided with what I call The Moment. I can tell you this: when your daughter stops breathing, time dilates. Seconds are experienced as long and hysterical days, and there is a wickedly vivid compression of thoughts — thoughts that mark like a tattooist’s pen, thoughts that I can’t describe here.
She choked. On the food that I gave her. At first, her expression was one of sweet, innocent confusion. Then alarm. Then her face changed colour. Then there was silence, from her at least. I had her over my knee horizontally, face down, while I called triple-zero. How do I unlock my phone? Should I scream for the neighbours’ help? We were alone. How long did we have?
I slammed her back. Nothing. I slammed again. Nothing. How much force is too much? How much is too little? I thought about the baby first aid course I took before she was born. I thought about the baby mannequin. Forgetting I’d called them only seconds before, the paramedic’s voice on speaker-phone surprised me. “Don’t hit her back,” they said, contradicting the advice of my fridge magnet.
In the end, the ambulance wasn’t needed. I thrust my index finger into her mouth, down her throat, and scooped out the food. The cats pounced and ate it, and their obliviousness to the horror was, frankly, obscene.
I held my daughter and sobbed. She recovered instantly and asked for The Wiggles, while I learned how difficult it is to use a remote control while your hands shake like a flag in a storm.
All of this has introduced a powerful new anxiety to my potpourri of them. I dice my daughter’s food so finely now that it’s almost liquefied, and proposed to my partner a new diet for our daughter comprised exclusively of soup and jam. I now hesitate to play Sesame Street out of a sincere concern that Cookie Monster’s violent consumption of biscuits might be setting a dangerous example.
My anxiety has been both magnified and weirdly refracted by sustained isolation and uncertainty.
The struggle is real, as we millennials like to say. And to my fellow millennial Lewis Hamilton, I propose that what’s truly humbling is not supreme excellence but the combined loss of hair, friends and mental orientation — and the sustained exposure to the grey, irritable soul that resides within your candy shell.
Our world will return, eventually. But we’ll be different for it.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Melbourne lockdown has revealed my grey, irritable soul – and that’s humbling | Melbourne