When the pandemic hit, I became a critic.
At first I didn’t know I was becoming a critic. But when I look back to those first few months of the crisis, I notice how deeply interested I became in the qualities of the things I was enjoying.
It started in March 2020, when I decided to “get into” film. I read Roger Ebert, watched classic noir, art house, and foreign films, and talked at length about movies with friends. I made a list of my top 100 movies (but titled it “Movies I Like,” in an effort to convince myself it wasn’t contrived) and fretted over which one to kick off whenever I remembered an obvious omission.
By summer, my criticism turned (predictably) gastronomical. Once they re-opened, I discovered the “best” restaurants in my neighborhood and took friends there, urging them to order my favorite dish and extolling its virtues. I bought sour beers, bright whites, and bold reds, assessing their bodies and offering a critical perspective to whomever I was with.
In short, I was not fun to be around.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, I think the expanses of unstructured time, for me, brought on a cruel, sort of funny personal dilemma. On the one hand, I wanted to “redeem the time.” To learn new things. To continue to be productive and thoughtful with all the hours that were suddenly given to me. On the other hand, I wanted to self-soothe. To watch movies and TV. To eat and drink what I wanted. To adapt to the pandemic by becoming one with my couch.
This dilemma seems to have been a pretty common one. I’ve seen it described in memes and other internet artifacts from spring 2020 all the way to the present. But as a critic, I slipped between the horns of the dilemma. I just didn’t want to choose.
I thought I was learning capacity, largeness of heart, imagination. (And in a small sense, maybe I was.) But really, I was trying to wed two desires—to improve and to indulge—into harmony for a few confusing months. (Looking back, I sometimes wonder: are some forms of self-trickery actually kind of clever?)
Strangely, I’m reminded of this time in my life because of its contrast with my first winter back in Grand Rapids, where I now live. In the brutal cold, I’m reminded again with stark clarity that the world is not as hospitable as I needed to pretend it was in early-mid 2020. Life is full of things that must be suffered rather than enjoyed. Spirit and flesh are often at odds. Self-denial often yields more learning than a curious appetite.
Honestly, I’m glad for the times in the early pandemic when I was a critic. Aside from making me a bit insufferable, it was probably good for me. I’m a Dutch Calvinist, so I too often associate goodness with suffering. Maybe associating it with beauty for a while pushed me more towards God at a time when I needed it.
But Grand Rapids in the winter is no place for a critic. Life in single-digit temperatures just takes too much maintenance. Food, drink, movies, books—in this climate they’re all fuel for my spirit, not ornaments on my experience.
So, I’ve resolved this season to become an enjoyer of the passable and good enough. It’s going okay so far.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. After five years on the East Coast, he now lives in Grand Rapids, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.