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Flight and Football

Sometime in December, I started watching English Premier League football.

Big deal, you may be thinking, you and half the world! This is the Premier League era, after all. (Or so I’ve been told.)

But it is, actually, a big deal for me. I’ve always had a fractious relationship with sports. Growing up in Canada, I played hockey, naturally, and I was all-around terrible at it until my parents sent me to power-skating lessons. After those lessons, I was like a bullet on the ice, graceful as can be, skating circles around my opponents. Unfortunately, power-skating doesn’t teach you how to handle a puck, so whenever that pesky disk slid in front of me I remained as helpless as before.

It was the same for other sports: I vaguely remember being appointed to the basketball team in fifth grade by virtue of my height — I can’t imagine there was a tryout, or else how did I end up on the team? Unfortunately, my list of athletic virtues ended at my five feet whatever. Soccer was no different. I was a stalwart defenseman because it involved little movement and plenty of time to look at clouds and study the grass at my feet. No guts, no glory, just how I liked it. So why my sudden interest in watching the sport?

This pandemic works in mysterious ways. It’s a global phenomenon, of course, wreaking havoc across every continent and, at its worst, claiming millions of precious lives. The pandemic’s physical effects alone are unspeakably horrible. But it has also spurred 7 billion individual renegotiations of how we fit into the world around us, as the simple everyday weaving of the social fabric has been torn to shreds. So much I once took for granted is gone; general assumptions about the ways we interact, the ease with which I could reach out and feel close to those around me.

On the face of it, I’ve gotten into Premier League because I’m bored. I’ve been in search of hobbies. But that’s not the whole truth. Even though the stadiums have mostly been emptied of fans, the live-wire energy of a packed arena replaced by the tinny roars of recorded cheers and groans pumped in on loudspeakers, I can’t help but feel a kinship with the millions of fans who are glued to their TVs during those sacred 90 minutes. I’m sure every other person watching understands about 85% more than me about what’s going on, but I try and join in, railing against wayward shots and weak defensive tactics.

I’ve also picked up another hobby that suits my sensibilities at bit more: birding. I know. So quaint! I recently read Jenny Odell’s fantastic book, “How to Do Nothing.” According to her, birding is the perfect activity for learning how to resist what she calls the “attention economy,” and I accepted her challenge. So, about a month ago, in the dead of winter, I made the pilgrimage to the local hardware store and bought a small cage birdfeeder and a block of suet. For a few days, there was nothing. It was obvious that the birds hated my stupid discount food. After days of standing impatiently by the window, fists clenched, muttering to myself about my avian drought, some feathered friends suddenly appeared. First, a few small black-eyed juncos came hopping up, tentatively exploring this new oasis. Within a minute, their excitement got the better of them and they flew up and feasted. Then a pair of cardinals, a fiery male and female, her beauty understated but just as striking. Now I see chickadees, blue jays, titmice, finches, sparrows, wrens, even a mockingbird or two. It’s a thrill. Since the birds started arriving, I’ve mostly forgotten about the original aspirational goals of my birdwatching. It’s just nice to have visitors.

The pandemic has shrunken my already small world into a fully enclosed, pea-sized universe. I wake up, walk to the other room, do some schoolwork, log on to a few law school classes; somewhere in this sequence I make food and walk around the block with Maggie. Don’t get me wrong — I like my life a lot. I’ve been able to keep in touch with many people I love. I’m an introvert, and I have really appreciated the slower pace of life. I’ve been fortunate not to be afflicted by the depression that has seemed to descend on so many during these dark times. But I can’t deny that it’s been a weird year. I feel removed, isolated. Ironically, I don’t think I’m alone in this.

So what of these new hobbies? I’ve had plenty of time for self-reflection, so here’s my theory: my subconscious has been busy at work, desperately trying to re-situate me in a social universe, one that expands outside the four safe walls of my home. These are knee-jerk reactions to the loneliness, reminders that the world is so much bigger than my tiny corner of it. Over the past year, we have been told to isolate. It’s a public health imperative, no doubt, but it’s also a deeply painful and personal demand. We have been asked to sacrifice: to cleave ourselves from our communities and approach each social interaction with apprehension. It’s necessary, but it takes a toll, and I think I’m just now realizing how it hurts.

And don’t get me started on the purported technological solutions for every roadblock the pandemic has thrown at us. Nearly half of my law school career will be completed over Zoom, so, as a Zoom professional, I can say authoritatively that it’s a weak imitation of the real thing. Sure, I’m still learning what I need to know, but video calls can’t replace real, constructive social interaction. Same goes for social media — I value the opportunity to stay superficially connected with my Facebook friends, but I know that this arms-length observance of each other’s lives is a sorry substitute for real, embodied friendships.

I think if I put a name to what I’ve lost, it’ll be easier to find again when the world approaches something like normality. It’s connection. That is why I’ve picked up these fun diversions — I know sighing simultaneously with fans across the globe at another Spurs loss is something like belonging. Sharing joys and losses feels like friendship. Spending slow mornings with the birds in the backyard is about as spontaneous and substantial as any companionship one can get these days. They remind me that I live in a place that has been a home to creatures who know the land in primal, instinctive ways I never will, who have inhabited it millennia longer than I will, and whose songs will continue long after I’m gone.

In her beautiful set of essays, “Vesper Flights,” naturalist and author Helen Anderson writes of the feeling of locking eyes with a bird soaring overhead: “Our separate lives coincided, and all my self-absorbed anxiety vanished in that one fugitive moment, when a bird in the sky on its way somewhere else sent a glance across the divide and stitched me back into a world where both of us have equal billing.”

I am a social being, hardwired for connection, longing to belong. It’s taken a global crisis for me to finally understand this fundamental truth. Despite my introversion, my contentment in my comfortable life, I am dependent on others. So I’ll keep up with my silly football games, my backyard birding, realizing that these are just my basic human attempts to stitch myself back into a social world outside my self-absorbed anxieties, a natural community beyond the grim realities of this pandemic. I think, in the end, these are just tiny independent acts of hope, biding time, preparing for a future when this collective isolation is just a memory.