Woog's World: Rethinking our world post-pandemic

Be honest: You didn’t think it was going to last this long.

I didn’t. While I was skeptical of the original announcement that Westport schools would be off for only two weeks, I did not think the entire spring would be scrubbed.

Not to mention the Staples Players’ performance of “Seussical,” senior internships, the prom, baccalaureate and graduation.

I was surprised the Memorial Day parade was canceled, and — soon after — the 4th of July fireworks. The Westport Library closed. So did the Westport Country Playhouse, and Levitt Pavilion. The very foundations of local life crumbled, one after another, under the fast-moving COVID earthquake.

Yet here we are. The next question — not what kind of school we’ll have in September, but whether we will actually go back at all — is very much up for debate.

It’s not the only one.

Westporters are rethinking our entire worlds. As we do, here are a few questions to ponder.

What roles do schools play in our lives? And what roles should they play? We’ve always assumed that the job of schools was to teach. But teaching is an amorphous concept. There’s reading and multiplication tables, sure, and then history and science and whatnot.

But over the years schools have done much more. They’ve taught cooking and physical education. They’ve helped children socialize, provided homes away from abusive homes, offered opportunities for athletes and musicians and artists to hone their skills. Our schools are their own ecosystems, maintaining a crucial role in our community while commanding an impressive slice of our budget.

What happens if that seemingly inviolable ecosystem is knocked off balance. Is “learning” the same if it takes place not in school, but at home? Or if, in school, raucous daily interactions are replaced by self-contained bubbles?

Is school “school” if there are no orchestras or plays? If the playing fields are empty? And if that is the case for a few weeks, or months, what happens when we finally return to “normal”? Westport defines itself, in large part, by our schools. It’s clear our definition is already changing.

What will our gathering places look like? How will we interact with each other when we are there? The Westport Library was just settling into its new “transformed” role when the pandemic struck. Nearly everything it had planned —— an enormous people-centered “Forum,” more meeting and conference rooms, expanded in-person programming — was designed with community gathering in mind.

Now gathering is fraught with peril. Officials have done a great job with virtual programming. But the vast stage, the impressive Forum and all those other spaces beckon. As the library reopens with baby steps, we wonder what that wonderful building will look and feel like.

We wonder too what our restaurant scene will look and feel like. With tables in previously unfathomable places — sidewalks! parking lots! roads! — we are able to enjoy dining again. Sort of. But the joy of eating and drinking with friends is diminished when we greet each other with masks. It’s a tad unappetizing to be served by men and women wearing not only masks but gloves. Scanning menus with QR codes is just weird.

It was easy, back in the day, to mock Starbucks. Who were those people, sitting for hours by their laptops, nursing drinks with impossible-sounding names, while nearby tables were filled with folks talking too loudly, reading alone, or even tutoring and being tutored?

They were us. Where have they/we gone? Is coffee the same if it’s not served (slowly) in an atmosphere like that?

Westporters have long gathered in restaurants and coffee shops. Someday we may do it again, just like the old days. In the ones that remain, anyway.

What does Compo Beach say about us? Last year, the big battle was over increased beach fees. Responding to complaints that Compo Beach had become overcrowded with out-of-towners, town officials raised daily and seasonal fees for them — even Westonites. The result was a very different summer.

Compared with this year though, that was still Coney Island. Now, no one from out of town is allowed in (except, of course, the Uber drop-offs near the Soundview lot). It makes for a safer, more (usually) social distanced scene.

But do we — blessed with the fortune of living by the water, and taxed for its upkeep too — have a right to deny access to our friends from land-locked Weston and Wilton? And if we have that legal right, what about the moral responsibility to share our shore? As one Westonite pointed out, her town is not keeping Westporters from Devil’s Den.

Over the past few months, we’ve all had time to think about yesterday, today and tomorrow. We all have questions.

None of us have answers. Basically, we’re back where we were in the middle of March.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.