Life in a Changed World and Workplace

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Last Saturday morning, a little bit later than I do most weekends, my dog Mulligan and I drove to our local garden center to pick up compost and organic soil in order to finish up my spring planting.

By 9 a.m. on a normal Saturday morning in early springtime, the garden center would be bustling with customers.

But normal, for the time being, belonged to yesterday.

“Good morning. I’m so glad to see you,” beamed the female clerk whose welcoming face I’ve known for years, but whose name I never bothered to learn.

Until now.

She squatted to give Mulligan a friendly scratch behind the ears, casually mentioning that we were her first two customers of the day.

“Can you believe how quiet it is?” she said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

 I simply nodded. I also asked her name.

 “Diane,” she replied with her warm and ready smile.

 We air-bumped fists, the new greeting for a changed world gone quiet.         

Indeed, across town, across America, across the small blue planet we all inhabit, the world around us was seemingly quieter with each passing day as we settled in, self- quarantined and sheltered in place against an invisible plague that reportedly doubles it’s toll every 24 hours.

According to one leading infectious disease expert’s sobering projection, half the planet’s estimated eight billion souls may contract this insidious novel coronavirus before the invisible beast runs its course. Calculated at a 3 percent mortality rate, that means that 120 million souls may soon no longer be with us.

In the meantime, save for crowded supermarkets where entire aisles are being picked clean of junk food and toilet paper as swiftly as clerks can restock them, streets and public spaces have grown remarkably easy to navigate. Traffic jams, until further notice, are on hold. So are ballgames, classroom attendance and church services. Ditto book clubs, weddings and spring vacation.

For better or worse, home sweet home is the new front line against a virus that has sent millions of white-collar office workers to their couches and dining room tables, disrupting the cat’s routine and creating a brave new — and understandably disorienting – blend of workspace and home life.

The other morning my daughter, Maggie, senior copywriter for a top advertising firm in Manhattan, called to explain that she and her fiancé are both telecommuting for the duration. She wondered if the old man had any useful tips for making work at home more productive and, well – easier to adjust to?

“Who knows how long we’ll be in this situation. So we’re trying to organize things so that we can get our work done and not go stir crazy,” she said with a laugh.

 At that moment, she was walking to Home Depot in her quiet Queens neighborhood, planning to buy plants for their apartment’s unused garden space and patio. She hoped to make it an appealing green oasis where she and her beau could work or simply escape after a busy workday in close home quarters. Fortunately, each has a dedicated workspace in their two-story apartment, not to mention a pair of large rescued dogs.

 I congratulated her on the wisdom of a garden strategy and gave her a short list of Uncle Jimmy Bob’s recommended plants that pair well with patio pots — not to mention a pair of rescues.

“Dad, you’ve worked at home for years,” she pointed out. “You must have some tips for doing this sort of thing without driving yourself crazy.”

She was right, of course.

Though I happily serve as editor of several arts and culture magazines in this state and have a long career as a contributing editor to several national publications behind me, my most important work — that of writing essays, articles and books – has always taken place in the comfort of home, or to be more precise, either a home office over the garage or in a spare bedroom.

As requested, I gave her a short list of my of my home-work tips:

Identify your most creative work time – generally the four or five hours (at any time works best for you) when your mind is freshest and the rhythm of work seems most natural. Studies show that, discounting gab time with office colleague and repeated trips to the water cooler, the average productive office worker puts in roughly 4 or 5 hours of peak performance each day. I call my best hours of work — which fall between 5 and 11 a.m. — my “sacred time” when the phone isn’t likely to ring and the world is just waking up.

Create a realistic work schedule and stick to it. If I’m not at my desk by no later than 6 a.m. daily, for instance it’s like “missing my bus.” Being disciplined about “protecting” your home working time is not only crucial to personal productivity but also gives you the right to be a total slacker later in the day. In my case, by noon my writing mojo is spent, and I can grab lunch with a friend and spend the afternoon doing the more “fun” aspects of my job — interviewing subjects, reading and editing copy, catching up with colleagues or spit-balling ideas with my talented, slave-driving creative director.

Know when to shut it down. My inner factory whistle goes off at 4 p.m. sharp every day, whereupon I typically catch a few minutes of the day’s news and head off to get dirty in the garden, run errands, take a walk with the dogs or go hit a few dozen golf balls before dinner. At sunset I can be found sitting in an old Adirondack chair watching the birds in my yard, reading a book and enjoying my favorite adult beverage. Work will always be waiting. But time away from the job (especially a home-based job) is healing — and vital.

Lastly, if you have young children or an elderly parent in the home, as I once did, finding time to fully work your day job and be a responsible caregiver can be doubly challenging — all the more important to build in dedicated times to exclusively address their needs and desires. One career couple I know has worked out a duty roster that allows each spouse to take on childcare duties during the other’s peak performance hours, a creative way of navigating the crisis.

Finally, be patient with yourself and flexible with your new situation. The temptation to raid the refrigerator or paint the bathroom may prove irresistible. A designer friend who is working at home for the first time told me she realized that her living room has needed a good full makeover for years, so she’s giving it one. Another friend plans to teach himself Italian when he’s not doing account work for clients remotely, already planning for his first trip to Rome when the all clear is finally given. As for the open refrigerator, friends, you may be entirely on your own.

Someday — we can only hope and pray it’s sooner than later — this devastating pandemic will cease its rampage though the world, at least until the next one comes along. In the meantime, experts say, expect the ways we live and work to be changed forever.  

On the plus side, social historians call times like these “hinge moments” because they typically alter our thinking about the social contract, revealing flaws in the system that lead to important innovations and life-changing developments that advance the quality of life for everyone.

In the meantime, here in the neighborhood where we’re all sheltering in place to battle the killer bug, it’s heartening to see how neighbors down the block and across the planet are reaching out to help each other.

Ironically, the virus that is forcing us apart is also bringing us together in surprising and reassuring ways.  

In fully locked-down Italy, where one commentator compares Covid-19 to the Black Death of the 14th century – Europe’s first plague that wiped out millions  — locals have taken to their balconies at 6 each evening to serenade anxious neighbors with arias and violin solos, a case of Vivaldi versus the virus.

Here at home, as shops close and social restrictions increase, food stores and pharmacies have created “seniors-only” hours for shoppers most at risk from the disease.

At the same time, local restaurants forced to shut their doors for the duration report loyal customers leaving notes of thanks and uncommonly large tips to service staffs headed for the unemployment line. In Texas this week, one customer left a $9,000 gratuity for the establishment’s hourly workers.

An old friend who is a special needs teacher on hiatus plans to help deliver meals with idled school bus drivers to hundreds of kids who would otherwise miss the most nourishing meal of their days. She’s not alone, either — as thousands of teachers are either helping distribute food or offering everything from reading classes to free yoga instruction online.

A post office official this week insisted she’s seen a surge in the number of handwritten notes and letters since the virus struck, proving there may no better way to reach out and touch someone than by the intimacy of one’s own hand. Thus inspired, I’ve penned and mailed half a dozen notes myself this week.

Locked-up senior living communities, meanwhile, report families of residents showing up outside their windows to creatively display photos and posters of affection and support. Along these same lines, my own bride offered our services as shoppers to residents of the senior care facility where her elderly parents are quarantined. 

Throughout our neighborhood, volunteers are checking up on shut-ins and neighbors who live alone, offering to grocery shop or pick up medicines – even do yard work. I’ll soon join their ranks.

Speaking of shoppers, yesterday at noon, stopping by our local Harris Teeter to pick up a few supplies for the larder, I found the aisles predictably packed with crisis shoppers — but not the chaos I’d expected. Instead, there was level of personal courtesy and calmness I’ve rarely seen in a crowded grocery store during normal times.

“It’s been non-stop like this for a week,” admitted my checkout attendant, a young black woman about my daughter’s age, when I commented on the surprisingly civilized scene.

 “I think it’s because everyone knows we’re all in this together,” she said. “My grandmother says the only way we’ll get though this crazy thing is to be really nice to each other. She says we’re all going to learn something important.”

“Your grandmother is a wise woman,” I said, pointing out that even I’d already learned something important over the past few weeks.

I asked her name. She gave me a lovely smile.

“Shawana.”

“Thank you, Shawana,” I said. “I needed that.”

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