Pandemic Panic

One year into the official onset of the Covid pandemic in this country, and despite hopeful signs of its imminent demise, or at least some sense that it is under control, we are still living in a world of fear. Fear that somehow the vaccines won’t work as well as predicted, fear of more dangerous and contagious variants, fear that opening of restaurants and movie theaters, ballparks and gyms, will lead to another surge in the dreaded disease. So, for now, we still don our masks, I hope, and think twice before bringing the kids to visit Grandma and Grandpa, getting on an airplane for a long-delayed but much needed vacation, or even scheduling a long overdue trip to the dentist.

Some of this is irrational, although certainly understandable, given the ravages we have witnessed: more American deaths than in World War II. But some of the changes we have seen are here to stay in some form or another, not least the imperative to work from home, or at least remotely, which has now become embedded in our lives and has changed forever the way Americans will work in the future.

Initially, WFH was a great relief, at least to those who have managed to maintain their jobs and their incomes without interruption. Men shed their jackets and ties, women their makeup and heels, and sweatpants and pjs became de rigueur except for the too frequent Zoom calls with your boss. No more dreadful commutes, no more rushing to get the kids to school or daycare, no more coffee stains on your tie or silk blouse as you guzzled down your favorite addictive drug on the way out the door.

But then reality set in: managing the Gordian knot of your kids’ online education, finding privacy for your business calls (not infrequently in the bathroom in a too small apartment), Zoom calls at all hours (in a slight glimmer of hope, Citigroup, citing “Zoom fatigue,” banned such internal calls on Fridays), and finding that your two hour commute was replaced by two more hours of work rather than the leisurely cup of coffee and perusing of the Times that you envisioned. Of course women suffered the brunt of these burdens, because that’s the way it always is, but all of us have suffered some degree of Covid work anxiety because WFH is not the hoped for solution to the most basic American disease, work obsession.

Compared to those millions, especially in the service industries, who have lost their jobs, perhaps forever, the professional class has no right to complain. But WFH has become the Dream for many employers who can rely on our sense of guilt when we are not answering emails or responding to our bosses’ two am texts.

Which brings me to the exam dream. Who of us has not had it? We are in college and realize that we have a final exam. Except that we have not attended the class once all semester and have not done any of the reading for the course. In the extreme version, we show up naked and have no idea what happened to our clothes.

It does not take very deep Freudian analysis to interpret that we all suffer, at least a little, from fear of being discovered as a fraud. We wonder whether we really deserve our successes and shudder at the thought that we will be found out. Back in the days when we all worked in offices, we could more easily dismiss this fear as we worked collegially (or not) among others in the same boat. But at home, we worry that we will be caught helping our kids with their homework, watching reruns of The Wire, or, heaven forbid, taking a nap. So we trudge on, relentlessly, taking every call, poring over every overbearing client email and trying to squeeze in making dinner. Even exercising emulates work, as we grunt and sweat on our Pelotons with sexed out instructors urging us up the ever judgmental Leaderboard.

Some of us dream of dinner at a fancy restaurant, a game at the ballpark or a simple night at the movies. But others long for a day at the office. Now that really sounds like fun.