Column: With Illinois reopening, I worry we’ve forgotten how to treat each other. But I’m finding hope ... on Twitter, of all places.

·5 min read

Are you guys a little nervous about Friday? I’m a little nervous about Friday.

The state is scheduled to fully reopen with no COVID-19 restrictions, which means crowded venues and long lines and people having to wait their turn for things. It means face-to-face, body-to-body, eye-to-eye, non-Zoom human interaction.

I want to be excited. We’ve waited so long and endured so much and worked so hard for this. The isolation has been devastating, to both human psyches and people’s livelihoods. We are social beings. We are meant to live in community. We do best with company.

But oof. This pandemic has brought out a pretty embarrassing side of our nature. Our better angels have fought valiantly to emerge — and succeeded in many, many ways and places and times.

But we’ve also given in to our demons, who appeared almost immediately. Remember the teenage ice cream parlor employee who fled her post under a hail of f-bombs last May? “I’m not a trauma center,” Polar Cave owner Mark Lawrence said at the time. “It’s ice cream!”

“People have forgotten how to treat other human beings in the six or seven weeks that they’ve been confined to their homes,” he continued. “They have no clue how to respect other human beings.”

Oh, Mark. If you only knew what was ahead.

The Federal Aviation Administration has received about 2,500 unruly passenger complaints since Jan. 1, 2021 — about 20 times higher than the typical number of complaints for an entire year. People verbally and physically berating the flight crew and fellow passengers, refusing to follow rules, throwing full-blown tantrums.

“This is an environment that we just haven’t seen before,” Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told CNBC. “And we can’t wait for it to be over.”

Nelson called the behavior they’re seeing “complete nuts.”

Almost every industry has its own share of horror stories.

So a full reopening scares me a little. But! I’m looking for glimmers of hope, and I’m finding them.

Partly in all the beautiful ways people came together and helped each other and healed each other since last March — the lasagna deliveries and food drives and Love Fridges and tamale purchases and GoFundMe campaigns and front porch concerts and an entire paycheck donation.

But also in small moments of quiet generosity.

McKay Coppins, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of “The Wilderness,” a 2015 book about the battle over the future of the Republican Party, turned to Twitter on Tuesday night with a rather adorable request.

“My two oldest kids (8 and 6) ask me to tell them an ‘interesting fact’ every night at bedtime,” he wrote. “Having now exhausted my own supply of memorized trivia as well as several random lists on the internet, I’m taking suggestions below …”

He woke up Wednesday to 3,000 responses.

“Horseshoe crabs aren’t shellfish. They’re arachnids. They’re more closely related to spiders than to crabs.”

“Peregrine falcons are the fastest birds and animals in the world, and have been clocked at 242 mph (in a downward dive).”

“When Sweden plays Denmark in the Olympics, the abbreviations are SWE-DEN … and the remaining letters in each name are DEN-MARK.”

“Dogs have developed eyebrows over the last 10,000 years or so as humans have domesticated them. This is to better communicate with humans. Wolves don’t have the muscle that allows dogs to raise their eyebrow ridge.”

And so on. (Some quick Google searches confirm these interesting facts.)

“It was definitely surprising,” Coppins told me Thursday morning when I reached him by phone. “I was stunned by the volume of the replies, but also who was responding — some trivia buffs, but also scientists and historians and snopes.com.

“Also,” he continued, “I’ve been covering politics for so long and I mostly use Twitter for work, which means usually when I have a tweet that generates thousands of responses it’s because I’ve written a story that makes people mad in some way.”

But this time they weren’t mad. They were helping. Still are helping, in fact. He’s up to about 4,500 responses and counting.

“I did the math and if every one I got is a separate fact I could use and I did one fact per night, these would last me 12 years,” Coppins said. “This will get me to when the two older kids are both out of the house, so thank you, Twitter. I successfully outsourced this part of my parenting.”

Coppins and his wife also have a 3-year-old daughter, but she’s usually asleep by interesting-fact time.

I told Coppins I found a glimmer of hope in the outpouring of responses and asked him if that made me crazy. Or just sad.

“People have gotten extra prickly and mean on Twitter,” Coppins said. (And in life, I would argue.) “This little episode was so cool and wholesome. It was kind of like a throwback to what we thought the internet could be — just a bunch of people getting together and sharing interesting facts with no ulterior motive or anger or passive-aggressiveness. Just purely for fun.”

To celebrate the fact bounty, Coppins treated his kids to three interesting facts before bedtime on Wednesday.

“They learned about a species of translucent frogs in Ecuador, a turtle that breathes through its butt, which they thought was pretty cool, and we looked at a picture of the inside of a penguin’s mouth,” he said. “They loved it.”

And they learned that people, when you ask them, can be helpful and kind. And the world, when you scratch the surface, is filled with wonder and beauty and cool stuff.

That’s the energy I’m taking into Friday and beyond.

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hstevens@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13