Latchkey OG

“You were made for this,” the owner of Biker Barre, who’s also a dear friend, said as I assembled a plan for how Capitol Hill’s favorite indoor cycling + barre studio could provide online content to clients during the COVID shutdown. “You should be head of FEMA.”

I’m not always great in an emergency but I feel like I’m crushing this one. After all, I excel at social distancing (aka preparing to introvert) and I follow the rules, skills that stem from my being the Latchkey OG. 

I was nine years old when my mom asked if I felt comfortable taking care of my little brother (7) after school until she got home from work. Even at a young age, I knew I’d be more attentive than Debi, who was 16 and had two kids of her own. I knew I’d be nicer to my brother than Betty, who abided by a 50s style of governing kids. I knew I’d be less naughty than Gloria, whose boyfriend would give us money to go to 7-11 for ice cream while they made out (and probably more) on the couch. Hey, it was the 70s!

But there were strict rules to being a latchkey kid. I had to hold my brother’s hand crossing the one street that separated our elementary school from our house. (He probably still has the bruises from my tight grip.) I could make us a healthy snack when we got home—usually mayonnaise sandwiches, which are delicious, don’t @ me. We could not answer the door under any circumstance. No talking to strangers or taking their candy or helping find their lost puppies. And if the phone rang, never let on to the caller that mom wasn’t home because that person could take advantage of two unaccompanied kids. 

Like much of Gen X, I’ve been basically prepping for the worst for forty years.

An aside: Mom instituted one rule we didn’t follow: we weren’t allowed to watch the Brady Bunch. The problem was, I loved the Brady Bunch, and given I was keeping my brother safe and fed, I thought I deserved screen time with this televised blended family. I’d turn it on, but pretend to be asleep on the couch when she got home so that I wouldn’t get in trouble. Remember, these were the old timey days when we had to get up out of our seats and walk all the way over to the TV to flip the channel or turn it off.

Seriously, this all relates to the COVID-19 crisis.

When I saw the meme floating around about Gen X being well suited to meet the challenges posed by the coronavirus, I felt a sense of validation. Yes, I stocked my cabinets with non-perishable foods, but I did not hoard toilet paper. Yes, I started following the CDC guidelines to socially distance well before most people took them seriously. (A friend reported from Arlington, Virginia today that the restaurants were packed at lunch. GO HOME, PEOPLE.) In my house, we wash our hands on the regular and do not rely on that now scarce commodity, hand sanitizer. 

I prepare the best I can (hold your brother’s hand!) but gird for the worst (that strange person who calls the house might come and get you). 

Not much changes. Growing up, I’d lie in bed hoping (praying?) we wouldn’t get into a nuclear war with the USSR in the middle of the night. When I was a sophomore in high school in Maine, my English class watched the Challenger explode on live TV and then after, we continued with our previously scheduled lesson until the bell rang. At age 21, high school friends were shipped off to Iraq for the first Gulf War. (Ironically, I heard from one of those friends yesterday. He reached out to tell me that my recent blog posts are comforting in this time of uncertainty.) In our middle age, Gen X has already experienced multiple economy crashes and wars, not to mention 9/11. In some ways, it we’ve been playing crisis whack-a-mole our entire lives.

And it’s an understatement to call our current circumstances unsettling, posing wake up at 3:18 and don’t fall back to sleep levels of stress. Outwardly, I make comfort food for Jack and Colin. Try to stick to schedule. Meditate. This morning, I live streamed yoga taught by my sister.

I’m wearing my best latchkey kid “my mom can’t come to the phone right now” face. Being organized and prepared gives me a sense of control. But inside, I’m scared like I’ve never been before.

 

What to expect when expecting a pandemic

The last few days have stirred up a frenetic energy reserved for the anticipation of a big snow storm. The toilet paper aisle at grocery stores is ravaged, pantries are stocked with dry goods that wouldn’t normally make a weekly shopping list, kids are out of school, and some offices have ordered teleworking. But instead of the excited uncertainty that comes with a storm hitting a region unaccustomed to dealing with winter weather—how many inches of snow will we get and how long will the kids be home?—the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing with it a heavy sense of dread.

The unknown is frightening. We don’t know whether schools are truly out until the end of the month or until June. We don’t know whether our hospitals can manage the heavy load of the sick.Will the food we bought last two weeks of self-isolation or two months? We don’t know whether our favorite small businesses will survive extended closures or mandatory confinement zoning. Or if two weeks paid sick leave is near enough for those working in an economy not friendly to time off. And not that there is ever a great time for a pandemic, but we don’t know whether that nagging sore throat is caused by seasonal allergies (thanks, tree pollen) or the coronavirus. 

There are some things we do know. For one, social distancing helps contain the spread of the virus. I’m grateful to Gov. Larry Hogan for swiftly making the call to close Maryland schools, even while I acknowledge the privilege embedded in my relief. My kids are in high school; they don’t need supervision, at least on the same level as an elementary aged child. They don’t rely on school lunch for their square meal of the day. Also, I work from home—and don’t have to worry about taking unscheduled leave.

Not everyone is as lucky.

On Twitter— which I generally categorize as a worthless time suck—people in other countries at peak infection beg us to learn from their response (or lack thereof). Epidemiologists say stay home, the most effective way to contain the spread. But our grocery stores are chock full of shoppers and the bike and barre classes are full at the boutique fitness studio I manage as part of my side hustle.

Americans: we are nothing if not predictable and self-centered. We hear what isn’t being said. Hoard toilet paper, hand sanitizer, shredded cheese (seriously, Wegmans was cleared out the day I went shopping) even though grocery store execs assure the only disruption in the supply chain is the one being caused by recent hoarding. We share the debunked “internal email” purporting to be from Stanford doctors about cold and hot drinks and deep breaths to the count of ten. (I shudder to think of the other fake news being spread.) Some even think, “I’m healthy” and flock to bars where they stand shoulder to shoulder with people who look healthy but could be carrying the virus anyway.

The president’s lack of leadership hasn’t helped. While he defaults to his typical posture of first denying there’s a problem, then working overtime to cover his ass, we get mixed messages. Maybe we wouldn’t be hoarding items from our snowstorm list while simultaneously practicing a weak definition of social distancing if we had a better understanding of the gravity of the situation, a sense of doom the president has worked hard to obscure.

As it is, we don’t know what to expect, except that our collective condition from the health of loved ones to the economy will get worse before it gets better. While it’s hard to plan for the unknown, as we hunker down we can suspend expectation, extend grace to those around us, and listen to those in the know.