Red Light Green Light, Upside Down

14 May 2020 | 10:32

Lifestyle changes that were unthinkable before COVID are now part of my daily routine. Take walking.

Raised on the Upper East Side, I crossed streets without regard to traffic lights. I gravitated to wherever I saw an opening, sprinting from one sidewalk to another, sometimes barely dodging oncoming cars. My reckless abandon turned to extreme caution when I became a father.

Walking with my daughter, Marta, I stopped at every red light, even when no cars were in sight. Reinforcing my new behavior were teddy bears attached to traffic poles in my Park Slope neighborhood, reminding people that several children had recently been killed by cars while crossing the street.

My wife, Brenda, and I repeatedly lectured Marta about the importance of waiting for the green, and looking both ways for vehicles. Wariness of traffic became so ingrained in our daughter — now nine — that I felt at ease letting her run ahead of me, knowing that she was sure to wait at the corner until I caught up.

Now when I walk in our neighborhood with Marta and Brenda, we proceed serpentine style, moving side to side, forwards and backwards, to avoid coming within six feet of other masked pedestrians. In our desperation to keep away from human virus-transmitters we ignore traffic lights, often dashing into the street, to walk parallel to the sidewalk, or simply run — against the light — from one corner to another.

In normal times I would have considered any parent acting like this, wildly irresponsible. But in an age when oncoming walkers are potentially more lethal than oncoming traffic, the old ways fall by the wayside.

Need for Community

So too religion. We are Sabbath observers, meaning we don’t use phones on Saturdays. But with our synagogue closed, we call friends and relatives, as a way of dealing with isolation.

For Passover we changed over our dishes, and rid our house of bread products, as Jewish law requires. But our seder meal was shared with friends and family virtually.

Using electronics during the first two days of Passover is prohibited by rabbinical authority, but this year, like thousands of observant Jews, we made an exception. We deemed the need for community, during this most communal of holidays, sufficient cause to throw out the rule book.

Rule bending is all around us. The storefronts we pass on our walks, shuttered due to no fault of their own, mock the idea, drilled into me from childhood, that success is a function of work and talent. With similar scenarios playing out everywhere, staunch conservatives have abandoned their religious creed, to endorse pouring trillions of tax dollars into the faltering economy — the fiscal equivalent of pedestrians rushing into oncoming traffic.

One possible outcome from the collective experience of compromising deeply held beliefs is that we will better recognize the limits of our principles — not only during emergencies, but in dealing with the exigencies of daily life. The flaws of absolutist thinking will certainly not be lost on children like Marta, who are developing an awareness of the larger world, just as their sense of certainty is being upended.

Skepticism of rigid attitudes will be essential for Marta’s generation. They will need a flexible outlook to compensate for decades of doctrinaire thinking that stymied efforts to address environmental, economic, and social problems, that are certain to become crises in their lifetimes. My hope is that after we return to our pre-coronavirus behaviors — after people like me return to their houses of worship and large holiday meals; after ideologues on the left and right resume preaching their gospel — the seeds of a more open mindset will continue to grow.

For now I desperately look forward to when my family and I will again have the luxury of obeying pedestrian signals. By then we will have surely learned that life is filled with blinking lights.