COVID-19 No. 11: When ‘Shop ’til You Drop’ Has a Whole New Meaning

grocery cart with item
Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

BY THE TIME I PARKED MY CAR and walked to the entrance, about a dozen people had gathered, waiting for the store to open. It was early yesterday, just before 7. I don’t usually shop for groceries on Friday morning, but if I have to be out and about, I want to do it when I’ll encounter as few people as possible.

Another pivot in the coronavirus era.

Another dozen or so people gathered behind me. Many wore facemasks. There was little conversation.

I was fortunate to have arrived when I did. The guy who unlocked the door held it open and announced to us, politely but firmly, that only 15 people would be permitted in the store at any one time. I was number 11.

Never has a task so mundane created such anxiety in me.

Even with so few shoppers, I couldn’t help encountering people in aisles or near endcaps. We all tried to adhere to the 6-foot rule as much as we could, but full compliance simply was not possible. I found myself holding my breath often — which, when you’re trying to tamp down your nerves, is about the polar opposite of what you should be doing. I wore gloves, which made handling produce awkward. There was little talking, and I was taken aback to hear a shopper standing at the meat counter say rather loudly to the butcher, “What the fuck else am I gonna do?”

Indeed.

I filled my cart in about half an hour, a record for me when doing the weekly shop. Because of the 15-customer limit, I didn’t have to wait to pay up. I thanked the cashier for being there and told her I hoped people were treating her and her coworkers kindly.

Most were, she said, though there have been a few who, y’know.

Yeah. I know. We all know. Some of those types are the ones who blithely chose to ignore warnings of a clear and present danger, the ones in positions of leadership and power who could have — should have, goddammit — answered the call. They’ll never acknowledge it, but these people have blood on their hands.

Anyway.

I rolled my cart out the door. Eight or ten people stood quietly in line, appropriately distanced. I shared a smile with the person at the front of the line, a gentle-looking woman in her seventies, loaded my bags into the car, and drove home.

I never thought I’d long for a return to crowded stores and long checkout lines. I’ll be happy to stop pivoting so much. | DL

COVID No. 10: Fear and Balanced

DESPITE POPULAR OPINION, I am not ashamed to say that I once was a journalist.

It started in grade school, when my brother and I would squirrel ourselves away in our bedroom, quaff water from our parents’ mugs and say we were drinking coffee, and bang out stories on a manual typewriter. In sixth grade — and I mean, we’re talking four decades ago, but somehow I still remember it — a gifted teacher rallied her students to produce a class newspaper. I was the managing editor.

In college, I submitted a few columns to the weekly paper as a freshman, came on board as a staffer when I was a sophomore, and wrote and reported like mad for the next three years.

And then, a few years out of college, I landed a job as a municipal reporter at a daily, covering local government and school boards and courts and the cops beat. I grew up in that job — learned to talk to anyone, ask them questions that would compel them to open up, take notes on the fly, write 800 clear, concise words on deadline.

And then join my fellow night-owl reporters at a local dive bar, catch some sleep, and get up and do it again.

All of that is by way of saying that I pay attention to the news. Close attention.

But now … I’m distancing myself.

I know it’s important to stay informed. And my job compels me to have a browser tab open to Twitter while I work, so the deluge of information and opinion, some of it legitimate, much of it complete and utter bullshit, pours on, relentless and merciless.

The former reporter in me wants to take all of it in, every story, every column, every inkspot, every pixel.

The father and husband in me, the employee in me, the retirement-account-holder in me, the goddamn citizen in me … that guy needs some space. He — I — has to ration his news consumption.

I don’t need to know every last detail — though I think I might want to.

What I need is to stay informed to a level that allows me to function — without despair, excessive fear, confusion, or anger. And that requires rationing.

As much as I want to know … all of it. | DL

COVID No. 9: I Am Not an Epidemiologist, So Take My Optimism With a Grain of Salt

DON’T ASK ME HOW IT HAPPENED, and please don’t come at me tomorrow to see if it’s still there. But somehow, someway, to paraphrase the great Marshall Crenshaw, I found not simply acceptance today but optimism.

Maybe it was the dawning hope that a major project unexpectedly handed to me at my new job will be seen through successfully; maybe it was hearing R. cheerfully FaceTime with her cousin this afternoon; maybe it was the bracing 2-mile walk I took while it was still dark this morning; maybe it was the sun-soaked stroll around the neighborhood I took just before lunchtime. Whatever it was, the existential threat of the last several weeks just didn’t seem as looming today.

I’m under no illusions that the next several weeks won’t suck. But it’s … several weeks. Not years, not a lifetime. Several weeks of sucking it up, being there for each other, rolling with it. Yes, me and my family, we’re lucky. For now, and hopefully for as long as this lasts, we can do these things. We can afford to do these things. I hope that as a country, one assaulted by a sickness that cares not for race or age or status, we can close ranks and do the right thing by everyone.

I have sadly little confidence our government can do this. And this is not a both-sides-need-to-get-it-together thing; there’s a party that controls half of the Congress and the White House, and unfortunately it’s the party that has patted science, research, data, and evidence on the head and sent it strolling down the garden path while it catered to the shrinking, shriveling demographic of old straight white guys.

My hope is that the united will of the people — because, again, this is an illness that is striking down the high and the low; COVID-19 doesn’t play the us-versus-them game — can win the day.

Blind optimism, perhaps. But I believe there will come a time, a time not so long away, when I will hug my extended family and my dear friends, when I will shake hands with colleagues, when I will sit in the stands with a cold beer and cheer on my beloved Phillies, when I will go to work — actually go to work, not step into the home office and turn on my laptop. I do not envision this time as a dream or as a hope, but as an eventuality.

He said, eyeing a half-full glass. | DL

COVID No. 8: When You Have to See a Man About a Cat

AS MONDAYS GO, today was a doozy in the 215.

A drenching, daylong rain turned our backyard into swampland, and chilly temperatures imparted a nasty rawness that made outdoor activity a dreadful prospect. Schools, it was announced, would be closed for another two weeks — and, my goodness, of course it’s going to be longer than that. The governor put the entire region under a stay-at-home order — no going out unless it’s life-sustainingly necessary.

You really can’t get much more Monday than that.

But there was also a moment that helped reframe things.

This afternoon, I was attending a Zoom meeting in our home office. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw one of the cats slip inside the ajar doorway, and my interior voice said, “Goddammit.”

Oh, have I not mentioned that both of the cats’ litter boxes sit less than 10 feet from where I was perched, laptop open in front of me, WITH VIDEO ENABLED?

I shot a glance at the “You” thumbnail on my screen and breathed a discreet sigh of relief when I saw that nothing below my shoulders was visible in the frame. Still — when you’re trying to be professional in these most business casual of times, hearing the telltale scritch scritch scritch of paws against plastic makes you feel a couple rungs below the guy whose toddler and infant bounded into the room, on camera, as he was delivering punditry on live television.

All the same, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. Life goes on, and we all need to take care of the most urgent of matters, whether we have two legs or four.

We’re all doing our best, all making it up as we go. And, come on, if Sawyer or Shadow were teleconferencing in my bathroom, I wouldn’t let that stop me if nature called. | DL

COVID No. 7: I Keep Using the Word ‘Normal’ …

HERE’S MY PRIMARY TAKEAWAY after a week of all this:

Whatever you can do that safely, responsibly reflects your prior coronavirus activities, do it. Do it often, do it eagerly, do it with intention.

That’s what gonna keep us sane and ready to pick up when the risk is behind us.

Yesterday, that meant a walk, a nap, and a visit with dear friends/family, with whom we observed appropriate social-distancing guidelines while we sat on their patio, luxuriated in the early-spring late-afternoon sun, had a few drinks, and laughed our asses off. It meant ordering takeout pizza, stromboli, cheesesteaks, and fries from our favorite local shop, watching Veronica Mars reruns while we ate, and playing Balderdash to finish the night.

Today it meant finishing an intriguing, thoughtful novel, catching up on some work, taking another nap, and cooking dinner.

It was all, once I yanked my head out of Twitter and news sites and such, delightfully normal. And normal is our friend, now more than ever. Normal will help see us through this, help us to realize that there is a lot more under our control than we might think. This is no small thing.

Control what you can, let the rest go, be kind, compassionate, forgiving, generous, and understanding, and we will get through this. I don’t know what waits for us on the other side, but that’s of little concern now. Focus on today. Focus on what matters. | DL

COVID-19 No. 6: You Mean We Have to Create Another New Structure?

HAVING SPENT THE BETTER PART of a workweek building a new daily structure to adhere to — all the more fun while onboarding at a new job — I’m now faced, as most of us are, with figuring out what Saturdays and Sundays are going to look like for the foreseeable future.

No trips to the dry cleaner.

No hanging out in coffee shops.

No browsing through bookstores.

No dinners out with friends.

No walking through the mall.

No ballgames to watch.

No Sunday-night visits to a favorite watering hole to conclude the weekend with a great friend, good beer, and the world’s best wings.

Hell, I probably won’t even be going to the supermarket for a couple of weeks. We stocked up a couple of weekends ago in anticipation of being housebound for a while.

As if we weren’t all making it up as we go along anyway, our viral lockdown has layered a whole new swath of What do we do now? onto our lives.

For me, I’m guessing that Saturdays and Sundays will include more reading and writing, more walking, more board games, more phone calls and texting sessions, more online shopping, more hanging out on the deck (thank goodness warmer weather is nearly here), more Wii and Xbox, more movies, more catches and soccer in the backyard. A lot of museums are opening up their digital collections to greater access, so I’ll probably check them out. And I have all kinds of work stuff I need to start learning.

How about you? What are you up to this weekend? | DL

COVID-19 No. 5: Walking Down Harrison

FOR THE LAST MANY YEARS, weekday exercise has been a first-thing-in-the-morning activity. Get up and get it done before any work and family obligations, following oft-shared advice. Some mornings it’s the gym, some mornings a 2-mile walk through the neighborhood.

This morning, the soaking rain that moved through overnight was still hanging around when I got up. Ordinarily, that would be no problem — a trip to the gym for a brisk half-hour on the elliptical. Of course, gyms are closed now, so that meant there wasn’t much to do except ride out the weather.

Which I did over the course of the day, jumping on numerous Zoom meetings, drafting messaging, and doing my best to learn as much as I could at the new gig.

Twitter, though. Twitter, man. I have a browser tab open to Twitter all day long for professional reasons, and today I participated in a great online discussion of things we higher-ed marcomms types need to be keeping our eye on. But that also means I regularly expose myself to the less reputable side of Twitter, the online free-for-all where everyone — everyone — feels empowered to weigh in with their own expertise, whether it’s legitimate or self-conveyed.

And today, that had me a bit more jittery. My work continued to provide welcome distraction, but the Twitter noise — ominous predictions especially — was impossible to filter out. I was left feeling angsty.

By this afternoon, the rain had drifted eastward, and though the skies remained appropriately gloomy considering our shared circumstances, the weather was fine for a walk. I finished up work, did a final check-in with a team member, and put on my sweatshirt to head out.

The activity did me well, and not entirely because of the physical exertion. Twice as I strode diligently, I encountered neighbors and friends, giving me the chance to chat for a few minutes about … well, everything that’s going on in the wider world. We talked with compassion and kindness, empathizing with our common situations and wishing each other well. At any other time these would have been meaningless, forgettable interactions, but today they were oases — islands of normalcy amidst a raging storm of fear, anger, anxiety, and uncertainty.

And here’s the thing: I walked away from them feeling better. Not rainbows-and-unicorns better, but just less flattened, less adrift. My heart was a little lighter. Not a lot, but enough to notice.

Connect with your peeps, friends, however works best for you. Whether it’s a walk observing the 6-foot distance or a FaceTime with your bestie or just a damn phone call with your mom, connect with your peeps. The normalcy will do you well.

At least, that’s what I found. | DL

COVID-19 No. 4: The New Normal Is the Old Normal … Kind Of

YESTERDAY WAS A NORMAL DAY at work. Interviewed a candidate for an open position, had a one-on-one with a team member, met with a program director to discuss advertising, churned through email.

Except it wasn’t strictly at work, since the coronavirus has chased us home to carry out our duties remotely, and it wasn’t strictly normal, since it was just my third day on the job, and who is fully immersed in the usual task list on day 3?

The thing is, for all the disruption wreaked by the illness, those activities were grounding. I felt comfortable weighing in, despite my newbie status. Because of the wildly kinetic nature of things now, I’ve had to jump in quickly, mixing tasks that usually crop up over time with the usual learning of the ropes. And that has helped — it has been comfortably distracting.

So. Professionally, all has begun well.

Personally, though, things are a mixed bag.

Family-wise, we’re keeping it together. The girls have structure, thanks to a general schedule and robust to-do lists that combine household jobs with online learning through resources the school district has helpfully provided. In the late afternoon, when their “work” is done, they retreat to their screens for some well-deserved downtime. There have been no meltdowns — granted, it’s been all of a week — and they are rolling with things as hardily as anyone could expect.

But this normalcy — okay, sorta normalcy — has freed up some mental bandwidth for me to worry.

Not over health. We’ve been conscientious about social distancing, and should one of us contract the virus, we’re all in good enough shape that I don’t think the prognosis would be catastrophic.

No, the worry is a longer-term, existential concern. Not about the viability of the supply chain or the health of corporate America. I’m thinking about my local bookstore, my local brewpub, my local pizza shop, my local dry cleaner, the hoards of freelancers, solo practitioners, and small businesses that fill our staffing gaps — local places and services that lack the cash reserves to withstand a months-long collapse of daily business wrought by well-meaning people heeding the call to flatten the curve.

The women and men involved in these enterprises are our neighbors. They are our friends. When we think of community, they are the people who pop up in our mind’s eye. If they fall, our societal fabric will unravel, and fast.

Are we willing to stand up for these stalwart Americans? To advocate that whatever relief is granted support them directly? To demand that we close ranks in the service of the collective good?

I sure hope so. | DL

COVID-19 No. 3: Welcome to the New Normal

TODAY WAS THE FIRST DAY of the rest of my life.

As it was for you, of course.

After a week in professional limbo — two days concluding the last job, three days off while the world wobbled, a weekend wondering what was coming next — I reported to work yesterday and had a great (if bizarre) first day. Among other valuable learnings, I found out I was to head home the following day and ply my trade from there for the foreseeable future.

The foreseeable future, then, started today.

Three-plus years of self-employment a lifetime ago conditioned me to the solitary professional life. But this new normal chuckles and offers a gleeful twist — professional solitude, sure, but in a household rattling with a high schooler, a junior high schooler, and a working spouse.

And my conclusion is … bring it on. It’s wonderful to have my peeps around, and thank goodness for the work.

The months-long understaffedness of the team I joined combined with the rampant uncertainty fostered by the coronavirus have plunged my immersion into ever-deeper waters. There will be no gradual ramp-up. This is higher education in mid-March, neck-deep in yield season, during an extraordinary time when we are charged with tamping down the panic and demonstrating our value over the long term, long after COVID-19 has exhausted itself.

No big deal, right?

The work, though. The couple of hours I spent in Zoom meetings and on phone calls today, my second day on the job, the urgency of things that needed to get done … well, talk about a distraction. Having a job to do, no matter where I was doing it, cleared out the uncertainty and fear, at least for a few hours. Walking a couple of miles at lunch with my family helped, too, as did shutting down at the end of the day and making dinner.

Fajitas, by the way. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Many public authorities are mumbling about re-evaluating the situation after two weeks. I have to think that we are at least a month, if not two, away from things regaining a whiff of normalcy. And that will be trying. Two cooped-up teenagers — one a graduating high school senior — will not be denied.

At the same time, we — all of us — had a good day. The adults did their jobs. The children studied, took breaks, studied, took more breaks, assisted around the house, and mostly kept their chins up.

Gritty was there for us.

And tomorrow, we’ll wake up, log on, and hit it again.

Because we’re the lucky ones — because we can. | DL

COVID-19 No. 2: Weirdest First Day Ever

SO YOU KNOW HOW STRANGE the first day at a new job is, right?

The awkward opening dance with HR. The introduction to new colleagues whose names blur together. IT’s transition of the computer in your new office from the last person to you. Having to ask where the damn restroom is.

Now imagine the first day at a new job amidst a global biomedical crisis the likes of which no one has seen in a century.

Welcome to your first day, newbie!

The good news is that it was a fantastic first day. My new job is intriguing as hell, my new coworkers are bright and talented and engaging, my new institution is proudly putting its stake in the ground, and my new working locale is vibrant, diverse, and exciting.

The bad news is … all of those things. Who wants to hit the brakes when a great ride is just getting started?

Philadelphia’s mayor is wisely shutting down what he can, and my new employer’s president is wisely encouraging remote work by all who can do so. These are the right moves, short-term sacrifices to increase the chances of long-term well being.

But for a new guy excited by new opportunities, eager to come in and crush it, and thrilled by how fun and interesting the first day was, the prospect of having to set all of it aside to work from home for the foreseeable future is disappointing. Such is professional life in the coronavirus era — I get that. A significant part of the work I do, though, is grounded in relationship building, and the best way to do that is face to face, across a desk or over coffee or having lunch. If you’ve figured out a way to do that while confined to your home office, well, do let me know, won’t you?

My work is in higher education, which observers have called primed for disruption for a few years now. This new reality — extended spring breaks, remote-only classes, barren campuses — isn’t what they had in mind.

But reality it is, and reality doesn’t care if it’s your first day on the job.

Like my new college and my new university, I’ll roll with it. I’ll make it work. I’ll accept that unprecedented challenges can be overcome with ambition and resolve.

And when it’s over, when I can meet new colleagues in person rather than via Skype or Zoom, I’ll enthusiastically shake their hands, buy them coffee, and listen to their stories. | DL