In Or Out?

I grew up as one of five kids in a family that lived in a house without air conditioning.  When the summer months came, my siblings and I would race in and out of the house repeatedly, through a battered screen door that would burst open and then close with a loud metallic bang.

After hearing the screen door knocked open and then clatter shut in hinge-rattling fashion for one dozen, two dozen, or one hundred times, my mother — normally the most mild-mannered person you can imagine — would say, with a decided exasperation in her voice:  “Bob!  In or out?”  That meant that you had to either come inside and stay inside, or go outside and stay outside, period.  A line in the sand had been drawn.  You could no longer have a foot in the inside camp and a foot in the outside camp.  A decision had to be made, and you had to stick with it or run the risk of Mom’s wrath — and no one wanted to risk that.

snow_tulip3_nga

This year, I’d like to ask spring:  “In or out?”

In 2020, we’ve had the most yo-yo spring I can remember.  We’ve had beautiful days where the temperature has touched the 70s, including one glorious day where I dared to wear shorts and expose my bone-white legs to the appalled world.  But for each really nice day, there have been multiple brutally cold ones.  Like, say, today, where the temperature as I prepare to take my walk this morning is a bracing 27 degrees and I’ll be bundling up like a contestant in the Iditarod.  And yesterday, as the temperature plunged downward again, it actually snowed, which was a decidedly unwelcome sight.  Few things are more dispiriting than an accumulation of snowflakes on brightly colored tulips.

Spring is normally a fickle season, but this spring has been ridiculous.  And the rank indecision has been particularly unfair this year, where countless cooped up people are yearning to get out of their houses and really experience balmy spring weather in their backyards and neighborhood parks as a much-needed break from shelter-in-place restrictions.  But spring, bless its capricious heart, can’t make up its mind on whether to arrive for good.  It comes, and goes, and makes a cameo appearance, and then flees like a prisoner on a jailbreak.  And I’ve had enough, already.

So, spring!  In or out?

The Boys And Girls In The Bubbles

Ohio has been in shutdown mode for some time now – hey, can somebody remind me how long it’s been, exactly? — and I feel like we’ve adjusted pretty well.  Human beings are good at that; genetically, we’re hard-wired to assess new situations, figure them out, and come up with new strategies and approaches.  In only a few days, changed routines have been established, new daily patterns have become the norm, and what was once unusual has been accepted and incorporated into our lives with a kind of resigned, collective shrug.

aidan2bin2ba2bbubbleFaceTime and Zoom and Microsoft Teams and countless other video applications have gotten a workout.  What used to be simple, voice-only calls have morphed into video calls as a matter of course, not because video makes the calls more efficient, but because it’s incredibly nice to see other human faces from time to time, to get a smile or a laugh and hope that you’ve lifted someone’s day as they’ve lifted yours.  Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, we’ve had virtual coffees and virtual beers after work and virtual cocktail parties with friends and family and colleagues to keep that human touch and to know that everyone looks okay and seems to be hanging in there.   Seeing faces turns out to be pretty darned reassuring and uplifting, when you think about it.

When we go outside for walks, we maintain that assured clear distance of six feet to the extent we can, veering into the street or onto the grass at Schiller Park to respect that buffer zone.  Social distancing is a physical concept, though, and it doesn’t mean we can’t maintain non-physical social contact with the people we see, through a smile and nod and a cheerful greeting and a brief chat as we stand appropriately apart.  People seem to be more consciously outgoing, as they steer clear of each other.  Maybe it’s just the fact that everybody is at home all day long where they used to be at their offices for most of the day, but it sure seems like there are lot of people out on the street at any given time.  Perhaps that’s because it’s another way to get that human contact — even if it’s remote contact.  That’s another element of this new paradigm that seems to have been adopted and incorporated without too much trouble.

During this shutdown period, we’re all living a kind of virtual life, but of course it’s our real life.  We’re all like the boy in the bubble, living in our little zones.  It’s a fascinating social experiment, and I hope people will remember this instinctive need for contact with fellow humans when this isolation process ends, as it will.  I, for one, will never take walking into a friendly restaurant or bar for granted again.

Retirement Training

There’s a secret issue lurking deep within the many layers of this coronavirus episode and the “work from home” restrictions imposed by governmental entities, like Ohio, in response to the pandemic.  It’s a delicate, explosive, almost taboo subject that isn’t really being addressed by the people who are directly affected.

retired-couple-riding-bikesThe secret issue is this:  in “boomer” households where one spouse works outside the home and the other doesn’t, the forced “shelter in place” requirements are seen as a kind of trial run for the retirement period that is coming down the road in the near future.  And neither spouse really knows, for sure, how it’s going to work when the one spouse stops trotting off to work on weekdays and ends up hanging around the house with the other spouse all day.  To be sure, they hope that the retirement years will be the golden period of bike-riding and pottery-making togetherness that the commercials depict, but they wonder if the reality is going to be more difficult . . . and darker.

To put it plainly:  is constant togetherness, without the “down time” created when one spouse is off at work, going to drive the stay-at-home spouse nuts?  And is the mere presence of the working spouse during the daytime period going to noticeably interfere with the habits and routines of the spouse who is used to having the run of the home, to do whatever s/he wants, without having the still-working spouse getting in the way or following him/her around like a lost puppy or a bored child who demands attention every waking hour of the freaking day?

Of course, this stay-at-home period isn’t a true trial run for retirement, because the working spouses are supposed to be working from home and, therefore, presumably have things to do that will occupy their time and command their attention.  Still, the need for adjustment is the same.  You might call this shutdown period a kind of partial dry run.  And, in a sense, that makes the situation even more delicate — because if the presence of the working spouse is getting on the stay-at-home spouse’s last nerve even under these circumstances, what’s it going to be like when true retirement comes and there is no work to serve as a distraction?

In households across America, spouses are walking on eggshells.  And if they aren’t, perhaps they should be.

Rethinking “Essential”

As of midnight last night, the State of Ohio has gone under a “shelter in place” order.  That means all residents, like us, are supposed to stay home for the most part, except for designated exceptions like seeking medical care, shopping for necessary supplies, and going out to get fresh air and exercise by walking, biking, or jogging, so long as you maintain that “social distance.”  The order will be in effect until April 6.

Old tools on a wooden tableOne of the more interesting things about the Ohio order is that it designates specific businesses and jobs that are considered “essential” for purposes of operations during the brief shutdown period.  The Ohio list is based on a list prepared by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and you can read about it here.   In a society as complex as ours, with an economy as varied and multi-faceted as ours, you’d expect the list to be an extensive one, and it is.  (And I’m happy to report that lawyers made the list, incidentally.)

The list should get us all thinking, however, about the concept of “essentialness” when a crisis arises.  Obviously, people who provide medical care — doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and the like — and people whose jobs involve facilitating the delivery of medical care, like pharmacists and emergency medical technicians, are at the top of the list.  We should all be grateful for the health care professionals who are truly on the front lines as we deal with COVID-19.  And, of course, police officers and fire fighters are essential in times of crisis, just as they are in more normal times.

But many of the other jobs that are crucially important might be a bit under the radar — and, until now at least, perhaps underappreciated as well.   Like truck drivers who are hauling and delivering needed supplies and driving incredibly long hours to do so.  Like the people at the grocery stores repeatedly stocking the shelves, arranging for new deliveries, and checking out the worried consumers who want the reassurance of ample supplies at home.  Like the postal service and delivery truck drivers who are continuing to bring messages and products to our doorsteps.  Like plumbers, and electricians, and roofers and repairmen who can fix our appliances and keep our homes in working order.

The long and short of it is that many of the truly essential jobs when we get into a pinch are traditional blue-collar-type trades that don’t require a four-year liberal arts college degree.  Those are the people who keep the food supply chain working and the toilets flushing and the lights turned on.  We should all be thankful to them for their hard work and their unrelenting efforts during this period, but when this episode passes — and it will — perhaps we should also rethink the prevailing view that everyone should go to college and go deeply in debt to do so.  Perhaps we should focus, instead, on the concept of “essentialness” and making sure that we’ve got an ample supply of those truly essential tradespeople on hand and ready to serve when the need is critical.

Degrees in comparative philosophy are nice, but in a crisis you just can’t have too many plumbers.