Thursday, December 3, 2020

Thoughts from a Pandemic Thanksgiving


For many years Dan and I have had Thanksgiving dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant. This year the restaurant is doing carry-out only, so we called our order in three days ahead of time. When we went to pick the order up, there was a line of people ahead of us. We got in the line and exchanged pleasantries with the woman in front of us. All of a sudden, a man burst through the line waving his phone and said, “I have an order to pick up.” Ummmm. The dining area was blocked off. The restaurant was only doing take out. There was a line. I wondered if he thought the rest of us had come there to stand in line six feet apart because we didn’t have anything better to do that day. Everyone, including the woman at the counter just looked at him. He got the message, but rather than getting in line, he stood near the counter until it was his turn.

            I don’t usually talk about it because it was an experience I don’t like to revisit, but I lived in San Jose when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989. I had just gotten home from my job in Palo Alto. I had a class that night, and I was rushing around getting ready for the class. I had just fixed a quick meal and sat down to watch the news when I heard it coming. People tell me that’s not the way it works, but I heard the rumble before the house started shaking. And I was there. I got into a doorway like I was supposed to and grabbed on to it with both hands. The power went out. After the shaking stopped, I called my parents to let them know I was OK. (Back then landlines worked even when the power was out.) Our minds have trouble absorbing the new reality when the totally unexpected happens. My immediate concern was getting to my class. The power was still out. How was I going to get my car out of the garage? As reports from the neighbors trickled in about the severity of the quake (the Oakland-Bay Bridge had a partial collapse), it suddenly dawned on me. This was not something that happened only to me. The odds were that getting to that class, which would in all probability be the last thing on the minds of the teacher as well as the other students that night, was the least of the things I should be thinking about. I think the time it took me to realize it was not all about me and I was not the only one affected was less than ten minutes. The shutdown, at least in Kansas City, has lasted eight months and counting, and some people, like Mr. Cellphone guy, have yet to figure out this pandemic is affecting everyone, and it’s not all about them.

            Like most people, I was less than thrilled with most of the changes in my life the pandemic caused, and I resisted. The spring semester at UMKC went online in mid-March. I finished that semester, but I sat out the summer session because I figured things would be back to normal in the fall. They weren’t. There was a class I really wanted to take, and I had a choice. I could pout for a semester because things weren’t the way I wanted or I could bite the bullet and take the class online. I signed up for the class, and you know what? I adapted, and actually I like it online. It’s asynchronous, meaning the lectures, assignments, tests, etc. are all online, and as long as I meet the due dates, I can do them from home and on my schedule. I find that happens a lot with me. I hate change. I make changes only when I have to. (I ordered a new laptop, primarily to use in Zoom meetings, for example, and I’m not looking forward to its arrival.) And usually I wind up wondering why I hadn’t made the change before (maybe I’ll like the new laptop, after all), which brings me back briefly to our take-out Thanksgiving dinner. Dan especially missed the ambience of the restaurant, but when we got the meal home, it was already in containers, so I didn’t feel the urge to overeat in order to minimize the amount of leftovers the servers had to pack up for us to take home. (Notice how I just justified my overeating as an act of altruism!)  We just ate what we felt like eating and put the rest in the refrigerator. For the first time in my life I did not gain Thanksgiving weight, and we got almost two meals out of the leftovers. I won’t say this will be our new Thanksgiving normal, but who knows?

            I think a lot of us are discovering that some of the changes the pandemic has forced on us are not that bad, and I don’t think the new normal will return to the old normal even when the pandemic is over. Many people can work from home, and it will be a tough sell to get them back in the office when the time comes. After all, in many cases employees have seen they can do their jobs from home just fine, and employers who are intransigent about going back to the old ways may find themselves in search of new employees. It’s a modern version of “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” As far as employers are concerned, they should be able to see that without needing room for so many employees, they can downsize the amount of office space they need to pay for. People may be free to move to areas they prefer without having to give up their jobs. I may have stayed with Company L had I not had to put up with the expense, commute, and general hassle of life in Silicon Valley as well as suffering the insufferable personalities I worked for. But non, je ne regrette rien. Things have worked out very well these nearly twenty-six years.

            There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a vaccine, so know the pandemic won’t last forever. The 1918 flu pandemic burned itself out in a couple of years without a vaccine, and the Roaring Twenties began.

            I realize there are many people who are really suffering during these times, and there are those who don’t have the choice to do their work from home, like the staff at our favorite Chinese restaurant, those who work at grocery stores, and most of all, those health care workers who bravely soldier on. For the rest of us, rather than obsess over what we’ve had to sacrifice these past months, let’s be thankful for what almost has to be better times ahead.

            Here’s looking forward to the rest of the 2020s!            

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