Let’s Get Physical

Up close and personal? More like uptight and cynical. It’s high time Northern Virginia rekindles the human connection.

Up close and personal? More like uptight and cynical. It’s high time Northern Virginia rekindles the human connection.

By Susan Anspach
Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

Imagine, Northern Virginia, two doors.

Behind Door Number One, you’ve got music, cocktails and friends. By the looks of things, Door Number One’s a popping time.

Now Door Two swings open to reveal a quiet living room and TV—or the makings of an early bedtime. Yawn.

But did I mention Door One’s off the Dulles Toll Road, headed east on a Friday after work? And that Door Two just so happens to contain a laptop computer already opened to the Facebook newsfeed updates of all the folks behind Door One, anyway?

Heck, if you pop a beer and squint, it’s practically like you’re there.

And it’s rationale like that, NoVA, that shows how far we’ve fallen out of touch.

Not that I’m pointing fingers. After a week of bumper-choked thoroughfares, floods of email and work-desk stress balls squeezed into something vaguely resembling a crop of rubber string beans, it’s only natural to want to, ah, decompress. (Just make sure to keep taking it out on the stress balls, and not the party—or, maybe worse, the newsfeed.)

Besides that, we’re home to DARPA, patron saint of the Internet. If anyone’s entitled to a veg session in front of some sort of screen, it’s us—I’d just rather not look down one day to learn I’ve taken on the bodily contours of an eggplant. (Although far be it for me to lecture Northern Virginia on our collective fitness regimen. That would be funny. If I looked under my basement treadmill to see blue mold sprouting from its conveyor belt, would I be fascinated? Absolutely. Repulsed? You betcha. Shocked? Not in the least.)

No, my concern with this region is that because we’re all so desperately craving downtime we’ve forgotten the basic human need for, well, other humans. Not those folks’ updates from their iGadgets. Not even their mirage imagery behind Door One.

We’re online, plugged in and, these days, all kinds of gussied up for Google-plus. But when it comes to real people—boxed photo tags don’t count; we’re talking something with a respiratory system—we’re out of sync with our social entertainment surroundings.

I’ve got a friend who was so absorbed in her online identity, so starved for a heartfelt, authentic connection, she didn’t realize a dashing, Tom Hanks-shaped connection was parading under her Meg Ryan-shaped nose the whole time. Until she did. And they fell desperately in love. I think there was a bookstore; Central Park may have been involved somehow.

And if it sounds familiar, that just goes to show my point, about screens, and technology, and not blurring the line between real and imagined relationships. You know what? Don’t think about it too hard.

Anyway, our isolationist tendencies only stand to get worse, now that winter’s on its way—since we all know, Northern Virginia, how you do winter.

The first whiff of chilled air blows in off northerly currents like a meditative salve. Following a fevered three- to six-month cycle of blistering heat and turgid climates, when the very air around us seems to be sweating, the opening whisper of cooler days to come is nothing short of mellifluous.

Then, a week goes by. The first real chill sets in. Panic grips us by our collective, frost-fearing nether regions—you know, figuratively.

No good can come of bearing down on our seasonal deficiencies. For kicks, then: Not so long from now, we’ll all be terrified to drive anywhere, because who springs for snow tires in Virginia? (In July, it feels like we’re practically skirting the equator.) We eyeball any cloud like it’s about to rain the 11th plague down on us, then storm the grocery stores as if bread papier-mâchéd in toilet paper were the only building material for an effective crucifix.

Shutters slam. A dog barks in the distance. And God knows what happens to our standards and etiquette for street parking, but it ain’t pretty. Honestly, Northern Virginia. Last winter I saw someone try to save his spot with a pile of what I can only hope was already dirty laundry. We’re better than that.

My point is this: With hibernation season rolling in, now’s not the time to tuck into a bottle of wine and back episodes of “Real Housewives.” (Secretly, we like the D.C. season best for making us feel downright attractive by comparison.) Anyway, save that for February, when we’re really getting desperate.

Not that we wouldn’t curl up in the manner of eggplant-flavored fritters, given half a chance. You know it. I know it. Every business, retailer and jurisdiction here to Culpeper knows it. It’s why they all bend over backwards each winter to throw a jubilee of what they guarantee to be mammoth, tinseled proportions; a visual that, in hindsight, should never be paired with the opening gymnastic stance of a bridge handspring. But we learn as we go.

Every year, we fall for it like eggplant-flavored suckers, even though every year it’s the same. Homesteads the region over unfurl exclamatory banners down the respective lampposts of their respective Main Streets, each one proclaiming its winter festival to be the Event of the Year, outside of the Oscars, and maybe last month’s fall festival. (Props: It did have face-painting.)

Anyway, that was then, and this is now. And God love ‘em, the folks who make it their business to see this kind of thing come together give it all they’ve got. We’re talking fairy lights, amateur ice sculptures, marching bands, vegan bake sales—maybe even a marching band vegan bake sale, should your star-patterned luminaries align. It’s not exactly Door One material, but you’ve got to appreciate the effort.

Because you can bet some kid spent a lot of time plugging away on that marching band’s sousaphone so “Feliz Navidad” wouldn’t have to go without a bass line. And that some mom gave up the good part of her weekend racking her brain for a butter substitute that didn’t make her popcorn balls taste like Orville Redenbacher’s bellybutton lint.

The rest of us could stand to learn a thing or two from fine folks like that. You can blame the weather (like you wouldn’t, anyway), the impending influx of holidays, or the so-called sappy end-of-year expectations that we perpetually take stock in and take to heart. Pick whatever excuse you like for whatever social malaise you claim to endure—so long as you realize it’s about as sound as my alleged acquaintance with a certain movie star with an enviable shag.

As grownups of the living and breathing variety, we owe it to a sense of community—if not our collective sense of sanity—to get out there and reacquaint ourselves beyond mindless status chatter and bogus thumbs-up stamps of approval on some YouTube cat’s online micro-celebrity. Get out there and talk about that YouTube cat’s online micro-celebrity over the hopefully-spiked holiday party punch bowl, damn it. (Please don’t forget to smile, either—winky faces don’t go over nearly half as well in non-virtual reality.)

If we don’t, there’s no telling how deep we’ll nosedive.

Come Christmas, we’ll be hosting imaginary tea with half of Hollywood’s A-list. (Imaginary Ms. Ryan takes hers with lemon, Tom Hanks with cream and sugar—or so I’ve heard.)

By New Year’s, Door Two won’t be a hypothetical. It’ll be tunnel vision for 2012.

And four months from now, when you wake up to the first flakes of snow skating past your window, you won’t think twice about dumping a load of gym socks—or something far, far worse—down on the first street spot you see.

But hey—at least that’ll get you out of the house.

(October 2011)

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