Outside the Box – Pandemic Edition

“You shouldn’t make light of a thing like that,” said a friend in response to my title for this week’s edition. Why would anyone joke about something which has stolen life, ruined and complicated lives, frightened and divided a nation?

Because humor is one pathway outside the box, and humor is sorely needed after eight years of non-stop political campaigning and 12 months of this boxing-in of our lives which feels like much longer. Humor is a survival mechanism, a release valve and a tonic. This is intimately known by anyone who has been to war or banded together to confront a challenge. Some of the best humor comes from the trenches, the locker room and the crew quarters.

We need to laugh because we are beyond weary of being quartered in our homes in what often feels like a version of house arrest. Though the armed guards and electronic ankle bracelets are thus far lacking, we are restrained by some combination of fear, cultural taboo and common sense from going about our normal pursuits.

We miss our relatives and friends. We miss hugs and handshakes and human companionship. In some parts of the country we are rebelling, understandably but unfortunately, against all these constraints in ways that occasionally exceed the boundaries of common sense. Even those of us who have tried to be careful find that we are less so as time drags on – even as new records for infections are set and the death toll is climbing again. We are sick of being boxed in. What can we do?

No, we’re not here to argue epidemiology or conspiracy, or especially politics, but I think we can all agree that there is much more virus news yet to be broken, and more inconvenience is on the horizon. There will be more lock downs in some parts of the country, and store shelves are already empty of various items. The last time I looked, Depotmart was running low on paper products. Not again! Right?

We’ll pause here to get our bearings. Some of us are new to the concept of “thinking outside the box.” What do we mean by “the box?” It’s a metaphor for any habit of thought which inhibits us from adapting to new information and new situations. Dogma, tradition, addiction, fear and inertia are just a few of the things which can contribute to a feeling of being trapped by our circumstances or unable to find a solution to a problem.

Scientists, artists and entrepreneurs, at least the successful ones, think outside the box on a regular basis. But not too much. A box is also a frame, and a frame is useful for helping us focus, to separate what is pertinent from what is not. There is a balance which avoids “analysis paralysis” and overthinking a problem. The revolutionary artist who begins a new movement still understands primary colors.

Getting back to our pandemic box, let’s start with a simple problem we can use to practice our out of the box thinking: Toilet paper.

We’ll include paper towels in that equation as well. Personally I take it as one more sign that God has a sense of humor when I consider the fact that the paper towel was invented in 1919 – in the midst of another pandemic. Don’t spread that around. Considering the quality of the thinking now circulating the pixel universe, someone might conclude that paper products actually cause pandemics.

We get it. When germs are on the move and looking for places they can lay in wait, we want to clean more. That means more cleaning products and disinfectant wipes are going to disappear from the shelves, and in our culture of instant and disposable gratification, that also means more paper towels. This is a logical consequence of rational thinking.

But toilet paper? Not to get too personal, but…y’all eating that much more on lock down? Staying at home makes folks more regular? CNN nervous stomach syndrome messing with your metabolism? We can go a week or two without food, a few days without water, but I’ve missed the directions on the back of a tp roll which say “take one every 4-6 hours,” like aspirin.

This is a great segue to our first out-of-the-box thinking primer, something which can make our box a little, or a lot less onerous: It’s called a “bidet.” If you don’t have one, you can purchase a bidet for less than the price of two of those hay bales of toilet paper like they sell at the Box Club stores. You can install it in about 10 minutes, and it cleans everything that toilet paper will clean and more. And better. It will make your precious supply of paper last 10 times longer, and it won’t clog up your septic system.

There are health benefits too, but you can research those for yourself. In some parts of the world where the bidet is more common, it’s considered more civilized – and sanitary – than killing trees to make a product not much different from a handful of leaves; a product that requires heavy industrial processing which is also a dangerous polluter. And by the way, your grandparents boiled rags and reused them before paper towels were invented, and their kitchens were at least as clean as yours, and probably less toxic. And we can’t live without all this paper because? We’ll throw elbows and fight for the last 4 rolls because?

Because we’re boxed in by tradition. We’ve always done it this way. It’s just a natural part of life. It’s our right. We’ve never considered anything else because our way of life is non-negotiable. It’s a mental and emotional trap that can be very easily sidestepped.

Subjecting our peace of mind to an inflexible paradigm of bathroom requirements is not the only box this pandemic is drawing around our lives, and we’re going to be boxed in together for some time to come. Not “together” like celebrities spelling out “We’re all in this together” with their yachts, but together in the sense that the rest of us are experiencing similar challenges “together,” and in isolation, at the same time. Stay tuned.

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