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DISPATCHES FROM A (PANDEMIC) ODD COUPLE

Facing a pandemic: glass half-full or glass half-empty?

Everyone deals with uncertainty differently, and never has there been a more uncertain time in our collective lives. During a recent zoom meeting, Christine and I – long-time colleagues and more recent friends — realized pretty quickly that one of us was the type who were imagining and preparing for catastrophe long before one struck, and the other was the wait and see, go about your business, react only to worsening circumstances type. On the advice of a third friend and colleague on the call, we decided to put our approaches down on paper, knowing these dynamics are playing out among friends and family members the world over. These are dark times, and if our odd couple observations can add a smile, a chuckle, a nod of recognition or all of the above, our job is done.

Jane:  I have been preparing for a pandemic my whole life. You wouldn’t necessarily know it to meet me (or maybe you would), but I am a “catastrophizer.” My head automatically goes to the worst-case scenario. When my first son was born, my husband and I disagreed all the time about when to go to the doctor if the baby was sick (this continues to this day for our now teenaged sons). Spoiler alert: my tolerance was much, much lower than his – especially since he uses the “why worry until you have to” method of dealing with things. Why worry? Why not worry? Early in my career, I took a Dale Carnegie public speaking class. One of the hallmarks of Mr. Carnegie’s philosophy is taking a problem and asking yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” It’s supposed to give perspective and calm you down. I, however, found the exercise futile because the answer is always death or financial ruin – no matter the question. COVID-19 is the realization of everything I fear. I can’t see it, I can’t control it, and it’s deadly.

Christine: My brain isn’t wired for global pandemics. I have never, till the last few weeks, given a single ounce of mental energy to pending doom and destruction.  My make-it-up-as-we-go Mom raised my sister and me on a religion of “it’ll all work out” –you’ll make the train as long as you dash to the track, you’ll feel better in the morning; we’ll make it to the gas station even though the gas gauge is on E. By and large, she was right: with a few notable exceptions, it all worked out.  As a result, my brain naturally traffics in possibility, and optimism, and opportunity, not risk, or contingency. So COVID-19 is something I am still working to wrap my head around: it is bad, and worsening.  For a whole lot of people, maybe me and my family, it will not work out.    

Jane: I have been doing what I can to keep my family in food and other supplies and have appreciated that because of my every day neurosis we have plenty of toilet paper, several large bottles of hand sanitizer, and between 3 and 5 containers of disinfecting wipes – all of which were purchased long before COVID-19 was even a thing. I wipe down the groceries, I keep packages outside for 24hrs if possible or simply spray them with Lysol, use hand sanitizer after I get the mail, and have washed my hands to Happy Birthday or the ABCs more times than I can count.

Christine:  My definition of “well prepared” is having something in the fridge I can fix for dinner and a quarter tank of gas in my car, so the whole toilet paper Hunger Games was a thing for me.  I’m a news junkie so had started reading corona virus stories from the first outbreak in China, and I took a jarring flight home from the Middle East in late January with lots of passengers wearing masks, which I’d never experienced before. Even so, it was mid-March, and the abrupt return of my college student, that led me to try on the hunker down mentality and discover the middle aisles of my supermarket.  As I filled my cart with canned soup, pastas, rice, beans, and tuna, I felt vaguely like Tara Westover’s Dad in Educated, preparing my bunker for the End of Days. I threw some dark chocolate in the cart, reasoning that everyone has their emergency situation go-to, and that’s mine.  Purell? Forget it. Long gone.    

Jane: Through all of my wiping and washing, it’s the people on the frontlines that dominate my thoughts. From the healthcare professionals going to battle daily to fight this disease to the people keeping the essential businesses open – the public servants as well as those who stock the shelves, ring up sales at grocery stores and pharmacies, and deliver to those of us too nervous to leave the house. These are the heroes that allow me and my family to stay inside, and I am eternally grateful.

Christine:  I have settled into new routines at home: meal planning, daily walks, remote work, social distancing.  I feel immensely fortunate for the roof over my head and stable employment, for kids who are safe and healthy.  I am not yet rationing toilet paper but I AM rationing Twitter, as every sad account of a lost loved one – often in their 40s or 50s – unsettles me and wrecks my sleep, and every testimonial from an ER doc without the equipment to protect her as she tirelessly tries to save fellow New Yorkers makes me furious with our government for planning for a pandemic like…well, like I do.

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