Stepping Up One’s Game, Pandemic Style

Lisa Suennen

Luke Timmerman calls me his humor columnist. That’s become a laugh line of its own in our house.

My adult daughter, staying with us during the pandemic, said this to me just last week:

“If you’re going to need frequent comedic validation, you’re going to have to step up your game.” 

Giggles have been hard to come by these past two months, I must admit. My own sense of humor, usually my most used sense, has been erratic, to say the least. Some days I’m finding the humor in the situation (at least according to me, if not my daughter). Other days I’m seriously considering faking my own death and running off into the woods.

This pandemic period has been so weird for everyone. The universal sentiment I keep hearing is, “What day is it again?” And that’s funny in its own right, given how close we are to living in the zeitgeist of Groundhog Day. The bigger question isn’t really the day of the week, it’s “what year is this again?” I haven’t seen gas down in the $2 a gallon range since whatever year it was when I didn’t have to worry if people noticed that my gray roots have grown out. 

Like most people I know, my days are a constant stream of Zoom meetings. It’s starting to make me realize how little I actually miss people. Everyone is starting to look like Max Headroom. The things you are guaranteed to say and hear are captured beautifully in this conference call bingo Zoom background. It has become my favorite for meetings after I brazenly copied it from one of my team members.

I’ve also started yelling out, “Can everyone go on mute?!” even when just talking to my current housemates. What I wouldn’t give for a moment of quiet that does not take place in my car!

The Zoom phenomenon has one great advantage. You get to see everyone’s real life persona. I love seeing people’s homes. Their awkward backgrounds. Their un-hip book selections. Their goofy lighting set-ups. Their kids making guest appearances. Their pets walking through the scene. I have come to recognize when people have their cameras pushed upward just enough so they can hold their pet in their lap, Dr. Evil style, while discussing the latest method of monetizing murder hornets.

Seriously? Murder hornets? What kind of fresh hell is this?  

By the way, the Murder Hornets would be an excellent band name.

Sometimes the pet situation can be a little daunting. My new puppy, a chihuahua named Olive, has learned to bark in exact concordance with the most important sentence of the meeting. 

My cat, a Bengal who goes by Luna, is struggling. She wonders why we are always home sitting on her couch, and she despises the puppy’s very existence. Luna seems to think that sitting on my computer keyboard is definitely the way to get back at me.

Maybe we need another square on the bingo board for “Hey cat, get the F off the keyboard!” 

Here’s how I know I am a) not alone with my cat woes; and, b) still somewhat sane: I was not the subject of this news story where a Vallejo, CA planning commissioner had to resign for slinging his cat into a wall during a Zoom meeting. Dude, we’re all stressed, but get a grip.  

Zoom life (vs. real life) also seems to work despite the fact that many of us have just given up on grooming. It’s become a badge of honor to have your gray roots showing, your bangs covering your eyes and an anti-gravity hair styling reminiscent of Motley Crue circa 1980. (Luke tells me he’s channeling his inner Lynyrd Skynyrd “Simple Man” from 1974).

Motley Crue

Many women who would never leave their own bedroom without makeup, much less go outside, have gone totally cold-turkey and now show up for their Zoom close-ups au natural. One study suggested that makeup use has declined over 50% since the Shelter-in-Place began, which I think might be understated by about half. I do have one or two friends who insist on looking good and wearing lipstick to their Zoom meetings; they are just making the rest of us look bad, if you ask me. 

I had a big (Zoom) presentation to a large pharma company CEO a few weeks ago and, after a 6-week-long make-up hiatus, I actually went to the effort to put mascara on. I nearly forgot how to do it and managed to poke myself in the eye. I have been applying my own mascara since gas was down in the $1 range, so that was a real wake-up call. Not only am I losing actual muscle by sitting around, but actual mascara muscle memory.   

Dear God, what have we wrought?

And in the most inconvenient way possible, I also managed to somehow get myself an ear infection while sitting around. I ventured out to see an actual doctor in person. He was looking into my ear with such gusto that I thought he may have found the holy grail. 

I noticed that next to the examination table there was a large bottle of Clorox. I suggested he save me a trip to the pharmacy by just pouring that in my ear, given that we now know it is the drug of choice for science-deniers who want virus-free insides. I think we both laughed, but it was hard to tell through the face masks.  

It’s not that weird to see a doctor in a mask, but it must be pretty weird for the doctors to see their patients sporting them, too. I had a sudden flash to this great Chevy Chase movie moment as I walked out into the hallway, seeing everyone in their PPE and not being able to tell which were doctors and which were people who somehow managed to get ear infections while sitting around their house. 

Back in the work milieu, all of the venture investor stories have been about whether or not people would/should back entrepreneurs whom they have never met in person. It’s tough to really get a read on people through a computer screen. I mean, seriously, what if they launch their cat after signing off? But it struck me as incredibly ironic that if the place where everyone wants to put their money right now is in telemedicine companies, wouldn’t it be weird to insist on meeting the team in person?  The whole point is…oh never mind! I have listened to a few start-up pitches these last few weeks and I admit to my own ambivalence on this issue.

But my favorite new business stories these days are the ones about the ingenuity that people are applying to the relaxation of the shelter-in-place rules. Every major sports team has its own line of face masks now. I can imagine that when stadiums and arenas open again, which I hope does happen in my lifetime (Go San Francisco Giants!), the big winner will be whomever invents a face mask that can hold two cans of beer connected by a straw. Those giant No.1! fingers will have to grow to six feet long to enforce appropriate social distancing. 

Actually, there is a cafe in Germany, and I am not making this up, that has created a hat with an attached 6-foot long pool noodle to enable patrons to dine safely. Are you the one giving the side-eye to fellow diners who might be only five feet away? Pull out the pool noodle hat to enforce your boundaries!

Can you imagine what the aliens would think if they touched down outside that café right about now?

I have also recently seen not one, not two, but multiple articles about the many uses of plexiglass to help keep people separated and thus healthy. For those of you with a long pop culture memory, these articles reminded me of the movie, The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman (Millenials and Gen Zers: go look it up on IMDB). The movie was released in 1967 when gas was around $.32 per gallon and was perhaps the most prescient story ever told. If you have seen the movie, you know that one of its most classic lines is “I just want to say one word to you…are you listening? Plastics.”  

It was excellent advice. Who knew it would stand the test of time oh-so-well.

As I think about the brave new world of consumer products, post-pandemic, it occurs to me we are going to have to ditch the phrase “go viral.” I heard someone say it last week in reference to a new product launch and I couldn’t help but say, “too soon.” People use that phrase and don’t really understand what it means. Now they should get it in the starkest of ways. If you are going to launch a new product and use social media as a method to scale your brand, you are going to have to come up with a new word. 

Anything will be better than hearing “go viral” in the context of the rapid spread of pool noodle hats. How about this, “It will fly off the shelves like murder hornets!”

Stay safe, stay sane, definitely do what you can to get some laughs. If you need me, I’ll be home trying to step up my pandemic humor game.

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