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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

Are people becoming more irritable? Or am I just becoming more irritating?

At my doctor’s office the other day, I noticed a new sign. “You don’t have the right to disrespect anyone.” Have irritated patients yelled at the receptionist? Sworn at the doctor? Stomped out of the office cursing after being asked to wear a mask? Refused to lather their hands in sanitizing goop? The possibilities for disrespect were endless and thinking of them helped me to while away the time waiting for the doctor.

Like many others in isolation, just emerging from isolation, or turning right around and going back into isolation because of Omicron, I am feeling anxious, stressed and probably irritable to boot. Last week, I encountered a woman coming off my condo elevator and heading out along the corridor without a mask – in contravention of condo rules. Yes, reader, I told her she should be wearing a mask. No, reader, that suggestion was not at all well received.

At my condo hot tub today (I thought a good soak would relax me in these fraught times), I got nasty looks when I asked if I could use it by myself in 15 minutes (the time limit before you turn into a prune). You guessed it: They couldn’t understand why we couldn’t all merrily crowd around the tub together.

I’m thankful that I don’t have school-aged children to add to my stress. A relative who is a dedicated elementary school teacher tells me that parents are frustrated that their children are below grade level, frustrated with pandemic restrictions, frustrated that the school has closed down because of COVID-19 cases and tired of having their little darlings at home. And who better to take out their annoyance on but the hard-working (and also frustrated) teacher. They complain, find fault, argue with her. There is definitely disrespect going on. She says it’s hard to manage a class over Zoom. Kids wander off and then later she notices – they never came back. Having their parents blame her for why things are not the way they used to be just adds insult to injury.

On Zoom, I find a whole world of irritation. People who refuse to mute or when you mute them, stubbornly unmute themselves. Speakers who can’t figure out how to turn on their video (I am deaf and lipread, so I need to see faces). People who insist on sitting in the dark so nobody can see them, much less lipread what they are saying. Zoom hosts who don’t turn on captioning because the captions might be used to invade people’s privacy. Somehow I had never thought of our Zoom chatter as top-secret intelligence.

Then there are the people who forget that I can see them on Zoom when they roll their eyes while I’m speaking. Obviously, there is a meeting of minds there: We find each other irritating.

Speaking of lip reading, I find that masks are great at turning everyone into mumblers who cover their mouths while speaking. Doesn’t exactly make my day.

The pandemic has resulted in fewer face-to-face meetings, and more email conversations, where misunderstandings and annoyances abound. When people don’t respond to email messages for which I expect a reply, for example, I feel hurt and wonder what I had said that offended them.

But I have also been working to counteract my irritability (and my irritation with others). It’s quite simple: I keep a gratitude log. Every night after I have brushed and flossed my teeth, I list three things from my day that make me feel grateful.

I start with the most basic one. I’m still alive! I haven’t caught COVID-19. I haven’t died of it (or anything else) yet. I live in Canada where I can not only get two vaccination shots but even a booster. Free. I live in a country where nobody is storming the Parliament in face paint and bearskin rugs, wielding a spear. I have shelter and am not a migrant sitting outside in the cold and rain waiting to cross a border to get away from war, famine or persecution, or all three. I have good Internet access and can Zoom to my heart’s content or until Zoom fatigue sets in. I can find out what is happening anywhere in the world at any time (not always a boon).

I’ve even gained an appreciation for masks, although I’m deaf and masks mess up my ability to lipread in conversation. I think I understand now why someone who covers their face for religious or cultural reasons may be reluctant to give up their face covering. I have become so used to wearing a mask in public that I feel exposed, almost naked without it.

When I think about it, my life is actually pretty good (in spite of all the irritating people). I know we are all of us in the same big leaky boat, so I’ll try to keep my irritability in check and keep paddling on.

Beverly Biderman lives in Toronto.

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