Editorial: 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... go! The ‘Great Lake Jumper’ shows us how to take the plunge back to normal life

·4 min read

A short run.

A flip.

And a splash!

Into the chilly water of Lake Michigan.

This is Dan O’Conor’s daily pandemic ritual, his liturgy, his small way of getting through the long, uncertain days of this strange time.

Some days he dives, or does a cannonball, or even a back flip. But every day for a year, the 53-year-old bus driver and artist has arrived at Montrose Point, often by bicycle and sometimes in a flowing robe emblazoned on the back with “Great Lake Jumper,” for one purpose: to jump in the lake.

“It cleanses the palate,” he said just before a jump on a warm overcast morning in late-May. “I can come here and find some peace.”

How fitting that O’Conor will make his 365th and last daily jump Saturday, a day after Illinois plunges back into normal life again with a lifting of most coronavirus-related restrictions.

“After a tremendously challenging year, Illinois has now reached a defining moment in our efforts to defeat COVID-19,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement announcing the state’s shift to phase five of pandemic recovery, lifting remaining capacity limits, social distancing requirements and health screenings mandates. Chicago, which has maintained stricter guidelines through much of the pandemic, is in sync with the state this time.

But will life just snap back to how it used to be? And should it? Or should we hold onto some of those rituals that helped get us through?

Family dinners at the kitchen table. Weekly Zoom calls with old college friends. Daily pandemic walks with the neighbor. A jump in the lake.

As fears and worries surrounded us, those new little habits kept us anchored to something steady — especially during a time when more traditional rituals, such as religious services, weddings, funerals and other rites of passage, were off-limits.

O’Conor’s first lake jump in June 2020 was a hangover remedy. But he’d also been stressed about the pandemic, and then about George Floyd’s death and the looming presidential election. “I hate politics,” he said. The jump cleared his head, so he did it again the next day, and the next, and the next. Through rain and snow and strange looks from passersby. “It turned into something positive I looked forward to.”

New York Times health writer Tara Parker-Pope says that phenomenon is called “savoring” — “when we make an effort to notice our surroundings or show appreciation for the people, places or things that make us happy.”

In a pandemic wellness series, she reported on a study that showed something as simple as “mindful photography” cultivates happiness and gratitude, which leads to fewer health problems and less depression. So, if you’re like one of us who started texting daily cellphone photos back and forth with a small group of friends during the pandemic, keep that one up. It’s good for your health.

Other routines? Don’t go cold turkey.

In a recent article for The Atlantic, science writer Ed Young looked at the impact 15 months of pandemic life — and more than 600,000 deaths in the U.S. — will have on us as we transition back to some kind of normal.

“For some people, taking off a mask will mean just exposing the bottom half of their face,” he wrote. “But for others, it signifies that they must reevaluate their understanding of risk and danger yet again, with fewer emotional reserves at hand. ‘I feel more clingy toward the routines I’ve established,’ Whitney Robinson, a social epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me. ‘Summer feels like an unknown, and kind of exhausting. (It means) navigating new situations, reestablishing relationships, and deciding on COVID norms. It feels tiring.’ ”

Back at Montrose Point, O’Conor considers what his jumps have led to. After about a week, he started taking video of his jumps and they took off online. An avid live-music fan, he’d worried that his favorite venues wouldn’t survive the pandemic. In January, local musician Jon Langford came out to serenade him as he jumped. Pretty soon, other musicians signed up, and more than 70 have performed with him, raising online donations for Save Our Stages, a group helping independent venues.

Fully vaccinated now, he says he’s restless, eager to travel, eager to get back to normal.

“I’ll still come out for a jump in the lake, but not every day.”

O’Conor won’t say what his final jump will be Saturday — the can opener? the Nestea plunge? — but he says there will be a group jump too. We’re all for it — no social distancing required.

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