NOBODY COULD HAVE known the “new normal” would be so complicated.
The phrase, in fact, is really a misnomer. For many of us, our “new normal” life in the unexpected and unsettling age of a global pandemic feels, at times, like living upside-down and backward.
Stifling, frustrating, vexing, depressing, occasionally comical? Yes. Normal? God, no.
Some of us are back to working at job sites, like the old days, with an added layer of trepidation about exposure to illnesses and upheaval caused by the unyielding coronavirus. Others have been tossed directly into what, after a time, feels increasingly like home confinement, minus — at least in most cases — the ankle monitor.
Indeed the Northwest, which was at the forefront of the outbreak in the United States in ways both bad (initial cases) and good (early and ongoing admirable science), also has led the way in accepting it as an inevitable societal course correction. Many major employers already have begun exchanging office cubicles (may they rot in hell — the cubicles, not employers, although …) for plowshares and stock dividends.
For students, professionals, retirees and many others, life and home are going to remain in a shotgun marriage, at least for the near future.
(Full disclosure: Your author, who has long (half-jokingly) referred to himself as an “employee of the future,” has largely been working remotely for more than two decades. But even he feels your pain, namely the rigidity of walls that seem suddenly to sport fewer doors and windows.)
It’s a game-changer, and the rules are mostly nonnegotiable.
For all of us unwitting and often unwilling participants in this grand global experiment, it’s tough to know how, exactly, to respond. Acceptance and adaptation? Rage, rage, raging against the tide? Or simply tucking the chin, tightening the face-mask straps and trudging forward, trying to keep good humor about the parts that are vexing, but not horrible, given past human tribulations?
To be crystal clear: There’s nothing remotely amusing about a pandemic that has claimed more than a million lives, and seems poised to be a persistent threat. But we’re choosing here to focus on the best chunks of optimism available — via the trudging-forward-with-mustered-humor approach — in the hope that the ability to appreciate the irony of our own predicament might serve at least as an ice pack for all the emotional bruising. It might even serve as acknowledgment of a new, shared community of people kept oddly separate by circumstance.
In that spirit, please devote some spare time — and let’s face it, your cupboard is full there — to perusing our decidedly unserious guide to Life in the New Normal, specifically directed to the newly burgeoning ranks of The People Who Work From Home.
DECADES FROM NOW, each of us is likely to recall exactly where and when we realized life would never be the same: the instant when we puffed out that first breath into the unwelcome guest that won’t leave town — the cloth face mask — and it returned, with nasty gusto, a sampling of the rank, horrifyingly fetid breath we had been cluelessly inflicting upon the rest of the world for our entire lives.
Holy Tic Tac, Batman. To the mouthwash, with a side shot of eternal shame.
In the process, we’ve all undergone a crash course in Doing the Right Thing for everyone else by covering our mouths and noses when out in public. (Excepting, of course, those legions out there who inexplicably believe that — what, their nostril hair is somehow filtering out virus particles when they exhale, so no need to cover that portal?)
Steep learning curve here, which means that many of us have now accumulated three or four hundred various masks of all shapes, materials and construction, tucked into almost every available crevice of our lives. It is simply a fact of life now that every time you open your car door, a half dozen will fall out into a puddle.
And also that the two or three that are the most comfortable, and don’t leave you wheezing like an old Allis-Chalmers tractor, are never anywhere to be found — probably hanging out with your wallet and passport, which few of us have bothered to account for since Memorial Day.
Hand sanitizers, once ranking up there near the top of the Panic Purchase list with toilet paper, are readily available now, and should be used liberally. In a pinch, such as a lingering power outage, you probably could even burn some of them in your old MSR stove.
THIS IS WHERE the rubber meets the road for us as a community of extremely cranky people.
We have all discovered, in distressing ways, that the most effective “social distancing” is actually social avoidance. But the cold truth is that said “distance” — 6 feet … oh, hell, make it 12 — is what allows us to move freely in society at all, and must be respected.
Sadly, this forces choices: Yes, we know the Kaufmann-Wilhelmens are among our oldest, dearest and most-trusted friends. But are they really N-95 mask-worthy? I mean, these guys presumably will be around for a long time, but there are only so many of those masks to go around …
These are decisions you should make thoughtfully, in consultation with your partner, if you have one who hasn’t already fled in terror due to a degree of living atop one another in a small space that literally no one signed up for.
In the coming bleak winter season, it’s likely to be even more complicated because the summertime solution — seeing your friends outside, at a Russell Wilson third-and-long-scramble’s distance — is much more difficult to engineer without the risk of the sort of frostbite likely to be memorialized in a memoir by Jon Krakauer.
But still not impossible: On the advice of a shrink — OK, several shrinks — we began preparing a covered porch space at the house a month ago for the coming season of dankness. It now includes enhanced lighting; outdoor furniture; and most important, a broad range of propane-fueled heating devices. The hope is it will allow outdoor — safe — gatherings of friends through the lingering funk.
Of course, now that this is occurring to you at the same time as everyone else who is in medium-security confinement, every propane-fueled heating device from here to Wuhan will be on back order (see: Supply Lines, below).
YOU’VE GOT TO EAT. Not that this has been a problem for most of us (Google up “Quarantine 15” for details). The current high-stress environment, coupled with never being more than about 11 steps away from your fridge, really should prompt an urgent focus on both quality and quantity of the food/mouth supply chain.
The struggle is real. And it seems to involve inordinate amounts of sourdough bread, cinnamon rolls, macaroni and cheese and cheese and cheese (and bacon), jalapeño poppers, blocks of cheddar bigger than our own heads, 5-gallon buckets of ice cream and several daily loaves of toast with butter applied Spackle-thick.
It’s true comfort food, breeding unique situational logic evident on a daily basis: “Do I want extra Ranch sauce on that valu-pak trough of King Corn Dogs? Are you seriously suggesting there’s any other way?”
And so on.
(We’re not saying we have fallen prey to this, but a few weeks ago, we caught our mail person checking off a box on a notepad while leaving the house, and within days, our inbox suddenly became speckled with King Size for Men catalogs.)
To quote the president: “We’ll see what happens.”
As if we don’t already know.
Mental and Physical Fitness
SPEAKING OF WHICH. We have checked, checked twice and checked again, and no: “Intensive Therapeutic Streaming” appears nowhere on the Presidential Physical Fitness Test (this goes all the way back to Eisenhower; anyone else remember it — or him?).
So that leaves you with a couple options (most of them, in the wintertime, bad), but still better than the alternative of sitting in a recliner chair in your basement, watching nine hours of reruns of “Starsky & Hutch” and eating Trader Joe’s peanut butter straight from the jar with a large serving spoon.
Choice A: Work out regularly in your home, preferably in a space (that you don’t have) set aside for this activity, greatly boosting the odds that you will engage often (which you won’t). Remember: It’s the thought here — and the appearance of action, preferably bragged about via anti-social media to friends — that counts.
Inappropriate personal aside: In the early quarantine days, I personally expanded my workout facilities in the basement man cave with a “TRX” suspension exercise system. This involves installing an eyebolt of sufficient strength to lift the engine from a B-52 into your ceiling, affixing a set of adjustable straps with grips, then proceeding to injure a broad range of joints while performing a set of body-weight-supported (see above, weep gently) exercises, most all of which have been banned by the Geneva Conventions, now meeting on Zoom.
Each time the full brunt of my weight transfers up the strap line to the eyebolt, the tremendous friction creates a deafening REEEEORRRRFFF! noise that travels through the floor beams to the upstairs, and sends my wife running to the basement, expecting to see either A) a freshly pulled B-52 engine, or B) a dead body.
The straps do, however, have the benefit of creating an excuse to sit on the floor with a tablet and watch instructional videos of insanely hot exercise instructors, doing the sorts of things with the straps you could do if you did not have the physique of a rotting narwhal corpse.
Note: This is just one example of the many, many things you can pretend to do at home to stay in shape until it’s safe to go back outdoors and fail to exercise there, the way you used to.
And that leads us to the second, preferred alternative: Get the hell outside. It’s cold, wet and forbidding, yes, but what’s your point?
Walk. Run. Ski. Slide. Snowshoe. Roll. Ride. Tromp. Inhale/exhale. It could literally be your lifeline, and this one doesn’t need to be affixed to the ceiling with No. 10 stainless steel lag bolts.
DISCLAIMER: THE AUTHOR has no kids (you’re welcome). But he does know many people who do have kids, and besides that, has watched a lot of kids on TV. In modern American culture, this qualifies him to be an expert, and perhaps the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
In the old normal, the children — the lights of your life, remember — were the best thing that ever happened to you; a delight to be around; and sources of pure, snotty-nosed joy except for those few times, such as holidays and school breaks, when they were underfoot just a tad too much.
And now the tad stretches to forever.
Look, you love your kids. Shoot, we love your kids. They are your world, and our future. But now they are the universe, as well. And they occasionally and understandably lapse into the realm of little Sharpie-marker-wielding domestic terrorists.
Let’s be frank: The fine print in the Kid Agreement DID NOT INCLUDE the phrase “Disclaimer: They might, in cases of public health emergencies, be stuck in the house for SEVERAL YEARS at a time, with no avenues of escape besides possibly the crawl space, and we all KNOW how high the giant freaky spider population is down there.”
Talk about your lack of choice in schooling. Sympathy is due. (And consider the likelihood it’s not ideal for the kiddos, either.)
Just do the best you can, and enjoy the month after month after month after month of quality family together time you have been gifted. Stay strong, and trust that everyone will adjust at some point — or, failing that, sue for emancipation.
SEE: CHILD MANAGEMENT, except allow for less slobber and more expensive home-delivered meals.
AS ALWAYS, THESE are problematic and should be engaged in only in dire circumstances. We kid our spouses and significant others! Don’t we?
To iterate, and even reiterate: You love your significant others, roommates and other house dwellers of all types. But now they are living in your face and halfway up your nose. Everyone needs space; few of us really have it in sufficient quantities, at least without moving to Goldendale, or Wyoming.
Step one: Concede this is tough. Two: Talk it out, folks.
Adjustments will have to be made. Bonds will be strengthened, or come unraveled, depending on the strength of the original stitching. Short term, iron-on patching is OK, given the circumstances.
Note: It might very well prove true that in this crisis situation, your most meaningful and useful relationship will be with a dog.
You could do a lot worse, and probably already have.
Supply Chain Strategies (Shopping)
EARLY ON IN the New Normal, some of us were ordering literally everything — from socks and collapsible bread proofers to slug bait — online. This put a tremendous strain on traditional American needless-consumer-goods supply lines, especially for consumables that tend to disappear quickly during a crisis — defined by the government as any situation that might cause people to hoard toilet paper.
Since then, being a successful home inmate has been all about anticipating the next shortage. This can be a crap shoot (see what we just did here in the TP section?), but also a fun challenge: What in the world is the world going to run out of next?
Figuring this out could actually make you quite wealthy. Or set for life in canned ham, antique oil lamps and customized LED garage lighting.
In the meantime: Good luck unloading all those button-up shirts and torturous dress shoes.
Online Meeting Etiquette
AT THE RISK of interrupting your “Breaking Bad” marathon, please know that central to the WFH world will be occasional spates of pretending to work from home. In many cases, this will require face time with other people also pretending to work from home, perhaps on something even more “work-related” than reorganizing the spatula drawer, or cleaning out the lint trap on the dryer.
That means that A) you might be haunted for life by a certain office Slack channel message tone and/or B) realize that life is now what happens between interminable online meetings via Zoom or a similarly intrusive web-camera app that turns your workplace into a real life version of “Hollywood Squares.”
A few tips here for online assemblage:
● Do not under any circumstances be Jeffrey Toobin.
● Standards vary by profession/industry, and by the situation at hand. If it’s a work setting and you’re trying to replicate the familiar, brain-dead stupefaction vibe of a professional meeting, you should consider wearing pants.
● Dogs are always a welcome on-screen diversion; bonus points if they are, you know, real dogs, as opposed to a yapper mutt that has its own carrying case. Cats? No.
● If you’re a student in a Zoom class, try to be vertical at least half the time when you are on camera, or at least occasionally send up a hand, so the instructor does not call 911 for a welfare check.
● Note: Consider that a frame grab from your most recent colonoscopy employed as a Zoom virtual background might be hilarious to college chums, but highly inappropriate for professional meetings, with the obvious exception of Senate confirmation hearings.
CANCELED, FOR ALL practical purposes, except, we suspect, for some die-hard Icicle Brigade turkey events, likely including industrial gas burners.
One reaction: major bummer. Another: Rejoice, rejoice! God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlefolk Who Now Don’t Have to Drive to Yakima Anytime in the Foreseeable Future!
Like work-performance standards, personal-interaction score cards, credit ratings and broadband-conservation efforts, expectations here are low, and dropping. Look at the bright side: You can still get your sugar cookies without arguments about politics. And don’t knock a Ranch dressing-based frosting until you’ve tried it.