The "uncanny valley" and the grocery store: feeling reality recede

The "uncanny valley" and the grocery store: feeling reality recede
I don't know whose diagram this is. If you do, let me know so that I can credit them.

I’ve been trying to process why grocery shopping leaves me feeling in turns anxious and hopeless. Each time I go out, and I feel a compulsion to go any time we get close to running out of something, I come home feeling beaten up by life.

My daughter has told me about the “uncanny valley,” a term introduced by Masahiro Mori that describes the feeling we have toward robots whose appearance is very close to human. Up to a point, he says, we are comforted by their human-like appearance. However, we reach a tipping point when they are too close to the human and become scary.

I suppose the uncanny valley is when the created world of robots interferes with our perception of reality. When a machine becomes too real, the threat grows because two worlds begin to merge, testing our basic sense of what the real is.

Grocery shopping for me, then, becomes a sort of uncanny valley, though it happens in reverse. The real, banal experience of buying food tips into the threatening when it diverges from the normal.

On a good day, six months ago, grocery shopping was never a favorite chore. I’m anxious in stores like these even when we’re not in a pandemic. The press of people, sometimes aggressively using carts like weapons, triggers in me a desire to retreat.

But now, dislike has morphed into a much more threatening feeling. The familiar grocery store is now an unfamiliar place of sanitized carts, signs on the aisles directing the one-way flow of traffic.

People, still aggressive and oblivious, wear masks and either observe social distancing or don’t. Either way, it’s odd. The observant see me coming and back up away from me, turning their heads. The oblivious forge ahead and I back up and turn away.

When I turn down the toilet paper aisle or the cleaning aisle or the baking aisle, I see yards of empty shelves. These very basic goods, what we need to stay healthy and well fed are gone, hoarded by folks perhaps even more anxious than I am. Or, worse, they are signs of the supply chain breaking down.

As I move haltingly through the store, my glasses fog up because my mask doesn’t fit quite right. I begin to heat up and get sweaty in a place where I’m usually shivering because of the refrigerated food cases.

The store is the same, but not quite. Doors are open on only one end. It’s unsettlingly quiet because it’s so hard to talk behind a mask.

The differences are likely not permanent, but I feel no assurance that we’ll go back to a true normal any time soon. I’m already beginning to feel like this is normal, the new way of life that pandemic has forced upon us.

It’s this last part that makes it so like the uncanny valley. Reality has morphed in a relatively short period of time that feels like years, into an unreal reality. In its wake I find that I feel differently about food itself. Grocery shopping is no longer a chore I dislike. It is now a chore I despise but rely on as if my life hangs in the balance.

My hard learned cognitive behavioral skills don’t hold up well in the uncanny grocery store. I can tell myself I’m catastrophizing. But a pandemic is a catastrophe, survivable for some, but not for all.

I can speak to my anxious self and tell her that we’re fine, that adult Kerri has child Kerri protected. But that’s a rationalization. I’m safer at home any day than I am in the grocery store, a place where many hands touch produce before I touch it. I feel guilty testing the avocados for ripeness, knowing that I’m leaving my germs behind on someone else’s soon-to-be avocado.

At night my dreams are filled with moving. I move offices and homes, constantly boxing up and putting away and then unpacking and putting away and then finding new rooms and abandoning old rooms. Each dream wakes me up and feels like a nightmare, rooms standing in for worlds that are no longer mine to live in.

Someone sent around the meme above over Facebook and it spoke to me. We have control over some things and none over lots of things. This has always been true, but the grocery store hammers the impossibility of control into my brain.

My goal now is to live as at ease as I can be in the world where I have some control, to create places and rituals of comfort. Meditation. Gratitude. Turning my eyes to what I love.

When a I return home from my uncanny valley, I unpack the food, wipe it down for safety, and organize the recipes that I’ll make with my spoils. I am grateful to be eating so well, to be able to chop onions and red peppers, to splash acidic touches such as vinegar or lemon on sautéed produce and to eat.

I remind myself that some are hungry and try to find joy in my meals instead of guilt. I make plans for new kinds of bread to make since I can no longer make the whole wheat loaves that I love. And I look forward to the time when I go to the store, as dangerous as it feels, to buy whole wheat flour when it’s back in stock.

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