The last few months have been sketchy for me as the demands of mitigating the pandemic and navigating pneumonia with resulting lung issues forced me into a new job search. I am determined to continue teaching in the fall, but, along with millions of other Americans, I know that full time employment is anything but certain. Daily, I fight the paralysis of angst as I try to reconfigure my safety net in an unstable economy, so it sometimes seems counterintuitive that my primary source of serenity would come from the ever-evolving vegetable garden.
I am no longer, as the bard would say, green in judgment, but these are still my Salad Days — chaotic and nerve-racking.
Last evening I wandered through the garden, noticing new buds and gathering treasures. A short while later, a black bear wandering through the garden cut short a visit to the composter and the driveway. It knocked over a barrel but left the chickens alone. I immediately knew who was responsible for knocking down trellises and eating cucumbers as soon as they form, but I wasn’t mad.
I was amazed, and the giddy amazement that comes with remembering that bears surround us in Vermont (there are over 4500 of them) got me rethinking the things I can’t control. Weather and wildlife may exercise as much control over my harvest as my work, but the chaos isn’t always destructive.
Sometimes chaos is a wakeup call. It’s the change that lets me see the new lettuce flourishing and the wild black raspberries volunteering their surprises. It’s the chance to marvel that wild things still exist in this part of the country. It’s the force that refocuses my attention on the people who need help and the planet that needs people to live deliberately. It may upend parts of my life, but, as with the weather and wildlife, I am working harder not to fear change, but, at an age when many people seek calm, embrace it as a chance for new experience.
Pneumonia benched me well before Covid-19 invaded neighboring New York State, but my son’s severely compromised immune function was already forcing considerations about whether and how to keep working at the residential school where I teach.
Our school immediately implemented Herculean measures to reduce the likelihood of infection. The experiences of other assisted living communities across the nation, however, suggested that any infection, once introduced, would spread rapidly. I love my school kids, but knew working during the pandemic might mean living away from my family. When my body turned on me, I was almost grateful to surrender the decision and took a leave of absence as our family settled into the stay home directives that, while not all that new for most Vermonters, felt like a different normal.
When I started considering family safety, the virus was sweeping through cruise ships. There were a handful infections in Washington state, and the media zeitgeist was proclaiming that the virus “only” endangered the elderly and people with chronic illnesses (about 157 million people in the US), as if that made it more tolerable.
One night early in March, however, I caught an interview with Yale physician, Nicholas Christakis, predicting the trajectory the infection would soon take. Identifying schools as disease vectors (as any parent or teacher weathering flu and strep season can attest), he advocated nationwide closures. “Flatten the Curve“ hadn’t been coined, but he was articulating the strategy: slow the spread, reduce the load on the healthcare system, and improve the odds.
As March and the pandemic progressed, Christakis seemed like Cassandra delivering disturbingly accurate warnings, heeded only when case numbers and fatalities began to skyrocket.
I remember marveling at extraordinary examples of solidarity by people from all walks of life filling my Facebook feed when Americans did adopt the social distancing guidelines already in place in Europe. There were some doubting the seriousness of the disease or disregarding how their continued mobility might endanger others, but videos of people making masks, entertaining each other, organizing school services and lunches for kids and families were brief testaments that we were all at least trying to be in this together.
Then the economy, already wobbling under volatile oil futures and markets, imploded. Poorly maintained government safety nets struggled to expand and accommodate millions of newly unemployed people. Suddenly the stay home directives were not just about flattening an abstract curve, they were about individual rights, paychecks, and haircuts.
I don’t have much sympathy for people screaming for haircuts, but at least 40% of adults in the United States don’t have $400 on hand to cover an emergency. That means a lost paycheck could easily translate to a lost roof or food. In regions that have not yet seen spikes in the numbers, the prevention can easily seem worse than the disease.
I had just started programming in 1996 when I first saw a program crash because an end-user had tried to enter the date ‘2001’ in a two-digit year field. We fixed that particular issue pretty quickly, but as we went through our other programs, we realized how many applications were vulnerable. Y2K work wasn’t just bread and butter for the next few years, it was steak and caviar.
That New Year’s Eve, I brought home a laptop to login to work and monitor for any SNAFUs. As midnight rolled around, I wondered if many programs would fail. Would the “major” systems around the world make the jump successfully?
The next morning, there had been a few hiccups but no apocalypse. Newscasters seemed almost disappointed that more things hadn’t gone wrong, glossing over the fact that the millions of programmers who had been updating systems for the previous three or four years had made that possible.
Right now, people are being asked to accept hardships to make sure that as much of our worrying as possible is for ‘nothing’. Some people, even offering themselves as sacrifices, are willing to play the lottery and advocate for reopening the country. With one journal, however, suggesting that school closures alone prevent “only” 2-4% of Covid-19 related fatalities (2000-10,000 lives depending on projections) and new reports of hospitalizations and fatalities among younger, healthier people, reopening the “country” is a lottery that will trade lives for paychecks.
But too many missed paychecks can also cost lives.
Some (including me) would argue in favor of securing the social and digital safety nets to enable as many people as possible to stay home longer and reduce illness and contagion. People advocating the alternative, however, do have valid concerns. Safety nets are expensive. Any vaccine could be at least a year away. There’s no confirmation, yet, that surviving the disease confirms permanent immunity, meaning that this could be a question of thinning the herd rather than building herd immunity. Stay home directives could be simply delaying the inevitable.
Less than a century ago “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson, depicted a modern version of a “brutal ancient rite” taking place in some version of Bennington, Vermont. Townspeople drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed by stoning to ensure a good harvest. The New Yorker and Jackson received mountains of complaints and abuse from shocked readers who could not countenance the idea of even fictional human sacrifice in a modern setting.
We aren’t choosing lots or stoning people to death, but in the end, we are being asked not just what we personally are willing to surrender for the economy or a flatter curve. We are being asked who we are willing to sacrifice to achieve either goal. How many and which people are disposable?
On our very micro level, I know I would give my life to keep my kids safe and fed. I also know it’s easier to be a martyr than a problem solver. At some point, the pandemic and the economy will force us to ask the tougher question of how to balance Thing1’s health (and life) against my need to work, against Thing2’s right to go to school and grow. When do we “reopen”? We’ll find some answers in logistics. Other answers will require making ethical choices far more difficult than drawing lots.
One of the bonuses having lived with bipolar disorder for over 40 years is that you can see the signs of creeping depression in others. I see it in my students when they have trouble showing up to class for weeks at a time or sleep through most of their school day. I see it in myself when my energy level plummets despite having had plenty of sleep, and, at about 11 o’clock this morning, when I went to announce that pancakes were on the table, I saw it creeping over a still-sleeping Thing1.
The young man who takes most things in stride, who rarely admits to anything bothering him, has been quiet for the last two days since he came home for the semester. Some of the time has been spent texting friends that he won’t see you for a few months. Other moments have been spent looking for jobs that, because of the nationwide effort to socially isolate, won’t be available and, for him and his compromised immune system, are extremely bad ideas.
My first instinct is to S(Mother) him with love. To try to take away the sadness.
But that’s not what he needs.
Trying to get myself ready possible home working and needing more space for books, I’m organizing my study and art space again. The target destination for my desk and books hadn’t been repainted in over 13 years, so I made a coat of paint and some new flooring my project for the weekend.
The ache in my recovering foot, however, reminded me early in the morning that climbing on ladders and spending too much time rolling paint might not be such a great idea. Thing2 wandered into the office asking if he could help, and I suddenly realized I had a cheap workforce just waiting to be put to good use.
Since T1 was still in bed, I decided to let T2 (younger and hopefully less business savvy) do the collective bargaining for T1&T2 Handyman, Inc. I laid out my business proposition — The paint and, with a bit of supervision, lay down the floor, and we agreed on a price.
I texted “pancakes“ to T1 and then mentioned the job. Getting no answer I decided to climb the stairs to his room and drag him out of bed before the day was gone.
“Are you awake?” I asked.
“Want pancakes?” I asked.
“How about doing a job today? I texted you about it earlier,” I said.
Suddenly I saw a little bit of movement under the covers. A muffled “what job?” could be heard.
I laid out the deal that T2 had negotiated for the two of them and got a verbal handshake from the senior partner before heading back downstairs for my breakfast. It took him 10 minutes to get dressed, load up his plate with pancakes and bacon, and head into my study to help T2 who was already painting.
He painted quietly for the first few minutes, ignoring his brother’s cheerful attempts to engage him in high minded debates about The Rise of Skywalker or the latest in video gaming furniture. It’s pretty tough, however, to stay detached when T2 is trying to be social with you, and soon they were chatting about the job and how they would spend their money. They had the room painted in less than an hour (T2 turned out to be a better negotiator than I gave him credit for) and were starting on the flooring almost before I could give them a quick tutorial on “measuring twice, cutting once.“
Thing1 commandeered the bringing in of the flooring from the car, perking up even more as he realized he was the only one of our trio who was strong enough do that particular job. As the day has worn on, he has chatted more, sounding more positive about the job outlook and asking what other projects he could do. And I realized that it isn’t just the money that he’s after.
For the last six months, living away from home, he’s been mostly independent. He’s done well in his classes and suddenly become an extrovert. He’s been tutoring and looking for jobs. He’s made plans for the next six months and the next six years. He’s been becoming a functioning and useful adult.
For the last two days, sequestered from society in the embryonic embrace of home, he’s been comfortable, but he hasn’t had as much opportunity to be useful. Right now I’m sitting in the living room having a snack to recover from the hard work of supervising my two young men and coming to terms with the fact what they are going to need over the next weeks is not to be protected.
They are going to need opportunities to be useful and a lot of them.
I'm trying, with limited success, to work three jobs. I got the one that pays the bills for 40 to 50 hours a week. I've got the one I took on when the Big Guy and I decided to become parents. And I've got the one that I'm still auditioning for – The one I get up at – still early, Buddy, don't you want to go back to bed? – 4AM to scribble in my notebook and doodle in my sketchbook for.
I slept in today. It was 5 AM when I finally dragged myself out of bed and into the shower, but I figured I had enough time before the rest of the house was awake – Stop that, kid – to get through a story revision – No you cant have the remote when everyone still asleep. Thing2 usually does his own figuring on Saturday mornings, however. Like most seven-year-olds he has a sixth sense that tells his body clock when it's a school morning and went to get up early. Today the body clock was working perfectly, and as I sat down with my notebook and a short story I'm updating, somebody padded out in his jammies and socks.
Now, I'm sitting on the recliner with my story in my notebook and no daylight or molecules between me and my seven-year-old. i'm still editing and writing. I don't know if these are the kind of working conditions that Louisa May Alcott had to suffer through when she was an aspiring writer, but I figure scribbling away with a giggly seven-year-old – Cut it out! wrapped around my writing elbow is in my next job's description.
I can get used to that. The pay isn't so great, but the benefits are hard to beat.
For the last month, I’ve been wondering if my bipolar disorder had evolved in to something more insidious as the chorus of demands created by a stint of intense overtime at work and holiday social obligations amplified, drowning out much of what matters to me – fitness, writing and even family from time to time. I had been joking the last few days that – even as a work-at-home-mom – I spoken to my kids no more than twice a day lately (Once to tell them to get on the bus, and another time to tell them dinner is ready and go to bed).
There’s an old saying goes, “When mom ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”. I never believed that. I was thought I was putting my family’s health and happiness first – even when I wasn’t so happy. But Saturday, as the Big Guy and I arrived home from a cross-state work party too late to get to another outing and knowing I had to throw together a potluck contribution for the town’s annual holiday Christmas party (the only place with a Santa who actually knows if Thing2 has been naughty or nice), I realized I wasn’t happy. And I wasn’t making my family happy either. I was running on empty which doesn’t leave you much to give the people you love.
Saturday night Mother Nature gave me a sign. Actually she threw up an eight inch powdery white stop sign. And Sunday, the din stopped.
We knew the storm was coming, and, while the forecasted 5-10″ isn’t’ enough to morph my Saturday grocery shopping list into disaster planning mode, I knew the weather would likely keep us housebound in the morning. I did a mental inventory of our hot chocolate and popcorn supplies, but I also began making a list of the commitments outside my door that I could now reasonably avoid a day.
Sunday quickly became a day of rest. For me, it was a day of no iPhone, no email – work or personal, no iPad or TV. There was no Facebook and no news. After a late-night saturday look at the weather map, there was Radio Silence.
Sunday, with the cacophony shut out, I was finally able to hear the things that matter. Three of them are still sleeping down the hall. The other I am nursing for the first time in over a week.