Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJ[email protected]
A note to my readers:
Here are a few more coronavirus-related letters. Knowing what I know now, I would have submitted them all at once, a few weeks ago, instead of spacing them out. Things have changed so quickly since that first batch: problems like nagging mothers and the niceties of social-distancing behavior may seem petty and quaint as compared to the deadly-serious questions and sweeping protests following the murder of George Floyd. I will submit my second batch of letters now, but humbly, in hopes that they may provide a moment of entertainment for those of you who are taking a break from weightier matters, and that they may still be of use to those of you who are still worried about contracting the virus during normal daily activities.
By the way, I do think we should still be worried – unless we live in New Zealand or Antarctica —and behave accordingly. Police brutality, social unrest, and a long-overdue focus on racial injustice have, quite rightly, been the lead stories this past week. And the virus has apparently peaked in some places. But there are still plenty of new cases and new deaths, and the same people are still at high risk. So please guard against slacking off.
On that note, I will preface my batch of older letters with a very recent one:
I want to march and bear witness. This feels like the moment America has been waiting for. I am at high risk for the novel coronavirus (68 years old, high blood pressure) and my wife is at even higher risk. What should I do?
Back when I was a wee tad studying Ethical Theory, we used to talk about how hard it is to maximize two variables (like achieving the greatest good for the greatest number). It is equally hard to combat multiple catastrophes. Ironically, I happened to be discussing this very problem last week while dog-walking with the editor of this very magazine, when we were hit by something called a derecho — which I later learned is sort of like a mini-tornado that moves in a straight line — and had to run for cover with our dogs, like so many Dorothys and Totos. We made a snap decision that racing into my car to avoid gale winds, flying branches, and toppling trees made more sense than avoiding enclosed spaces and staying six feet apart.
What I’m saying is that you have to weigh your catastrophes and how best to combat them. Knowing so little about your situation, I hesitate to advise you either way. But I will give you three overall factors to consider. First: Is there a way you can march in relative safety? I can imagine circumstances where coronavirus risk would be minimal, say at a small local march, very likely to be peaceful, in an open area, early in the day, in a location that’s accessible on foot or by your own personal bike or car.
Second: If you do not think that you can march without risk of close personal contact, much less disorder and violence, is marching the best way for you to work for change? For those of us who have a long history working for change, it is hard not to be a public part of history. But you have to stay healthy and alive if you want to be of long-term assistance. Ask yourself whether you can’t do more by working steadily from home or some other safe place, at least for the time being. You may have special skills to offer. You may, despite being a reader of literary magazines, even have some money you can send to the NAACP, or BLM and BLM-sponsored organizations, or the swing-state candidate of your choice. You can certainly make calls, send letters, and importune your friends and family, either on your own or on behalf of worthy organizations and political candidates.
Third: Bear in mind that, when you put yourself at risk, you are also risking the health and even the lives of others, not just your wife but also those who may have to take care of you. Where I live, hospital and other health-care workers are still asking people to stay home when they can, and I am sure that goes at least double for high-risk people. And there is evidence that the virus has a disproportionate impact on black health-care workers.
Whether or not you march, I hope you take heart at the sight of so many brave and determined younger people who are out there protesting. With them around, we may get through this.
I see that you are back with us and willing to handle questions of coronavirus ethics and etiquette. I have two for you, both from a walk I took around my neighborhood today.
Here’s the first one: A woman (wearing a mask) passed by me on the sidewalk carrying an infant who was also wearing a mask. Isn’t this dangerous? Isn’t that too young for masks? Is it child abuse? Should I have stepped in and said something? Called 311?
And the second one: A few blocks later, as I was passing my bank, I encountered an elderly gentleman trying to open the door to the ATM vestibule, which requires a card swipe. He clearly didn’t know which end of the card to swipe and, besides, that door is unusually hard to open even when you’ve successfully swiped. As I watched him struggle, I debated with myself about what to do. After a while, I decided to help. I motioned him to stand away from the door, but he didn’t understand, even when I asked, politely. After a lot of back and forth, I just stepped up to the door, into his space, and swiped, and opened it, letting him inside. Was I putting him or myself at unnecessary risk?
According to the CDC, children under two should not wear masks, “due to risks of suffocation.” The case you mention may fall under some rare exception, say if the infant was severely immunocompromised and was being rushed to a nearby hospital while wearing a properly-positioned N-95. But this seems wildly unlikely, and anyway your letter implies otherwise. So yes, the situation is dangerous, and the baby is too young. (When a baby absolutely must be in a situation without proper protections and social distancing, the CDC recommends using a baby carrier and covering it with a cloth, always keeping the cloth in sight.)
If you ever see a masked baby again, I urge you to speak up—be nice: most of us are doing our best—and say that you’re sorry to intrude, but that the CDC says masks are unsafe for kids under two. Be sure to keep your own mask on and stay at least six feet away. If the person with the infant disagrees or doesn’t believe you, ask them if they would please call their pediatrician just to be sure. Normally I warn people against being officious, and I have a deep personal aversion to making a scene, but a little life might be at risk here.
I am guessing that most people would remove the mask, or at least appear to be thoughtful and extra-vigilant as they walk away. In that case I would not call 311 or anybody else—especially if the baby is in a front-carrier or being held by the adult such that the adult has what the CDC calls “a direct view,” not in a stroller or backpack where the adult might not notice any distress until too late.
I doubt whether this case amounts to child abuse. Neglect, just conceivably, depending on the circumstances. Misplaced vigilance or simple mistake, most likely. Not that characterizing it matters at this point.
Now on to the elderly man outside the ATM vestibule. I would like to know more about this. How long did you wait? Was the man wearing a mask? Were you?
Since you do not mention taking his card, and you do mention that this was also your bank, I assume that you swiped with your own card, and that neither of your touched each other. So far so good.
And were you both wearing masks? If not, I would have advised you to walk on by the bank (or stay put, but at a six-foot distance, if you had also been hoping to get to the ATM). This is especially true if you were the unmasked one because, as we have all heard a zillion times, the purpose of everyday non-respirator masks is to protect other people, not oneself, and it would be highly irresponsible for you get in the space of an elderly, and therefore high-risk, person without proper protection.
But let us assume that you were both masked—in which case the risk was of course greatly minimized, but still present. Was it necessary for you to move into that sacred six-foot radius?
Since the vestibule required card entry, I am assuming that the bank was closed, so the elderly man could not rely on any help from a bank employee, which might have been slightly safer (if only because of the employee’s being on the other side of the door).
Okay: it’s just you, him, and the door. Separate card: check. Masks: check. And, unless you were at a bank inside a mall, or trying to get into a vestibule within a vestibule, I assume you were both outside. According to the latest research, transmission from brief non-contact exposure to another person in an outdoor setting is minimal.
Bur does the need outweigh the risk? That’s the hard one. I remain unconvinced that the man would not have figured things out eventually. I mean, there are only four ways to stick an ATM card into an ATM. I am really clumsy and a terrible guesser where card swiping is concerned, and even I muddle through if left alone.
It also sounds as if he never actually asked you to swipe him in. There was a lot of motioning going on, but I get no clear sense that he wanted any assistance. Of course, he may have been totally confused and disoriented, but an amazing number of older people do have their wits about them. And if he really was that confused, he probably should not have been in at the ATM withdrawing money on his own anyway, assuming he could figure out how to do it.
If I were you, I would have waited longer, until the man ether got inside by on his own or began to walk away in disgust, in which case I would have been able to open the door at a safer distance, wave him in, and skitter away as he neared the entrance, taking care to hold the door long enough so as not to knock the poor fellow out cold when I let go.
But reasonable people can differ on this one, I am sure. You did a kindly-meant—if perhaps just a bit condescending—thing, with what I am guessing was a good result: the man got inside and I bet nobody caught anything from your ten seconds of shared outdoor space.
I am a technical writer (divorced, no kids) and live alone. My city is still under a stay-at-home order and is likely to be for at least two more weeks, maybe longer if the numbers start moving up again.
My problem is that my elderly mother, who also lives alone on the other side of the city, has been focusing her coronavirus worries on me. She is convinced that I am taking all sorts of stupid risks and calls to nag me on a daily basis.
But, June, I am being really careful and don’t think I deserve this. Since the stay-at-home order came down about a million years ago, I have not gone to a restaurant, beach, or any crowded situation. I walk my dog, and sometimes take a socially-distanced walk with friends, always in a mask, and I shop maybe once a week with gloves and a mask and sanitizer and all that stuff. I don’t let anybody into my house except my boyfriend and my best friend, and she does not let anybody into her house except her boyfriend. I work exclusively from home these days, and all my meetings and conferences are remote. I wipe down everything that comes into the house. I wash my hands at least ten times a day and recite an entire Shakespeare sonnet every time (116, 18, or 29). I have not had to refill my gas tank in two months. In fact, the only person I ever visit is my mother, and now—although she wants me to come by at least twice a week—she won’t let me inside her house, so I just stand there while she nags and worries on the porch.
How can I get her to back off on the nagging?
You sound as if are doing most things right. Assuming that you are not at high risk for the virus, in which case I would suggest food delivery out of an excess of caution, your trips outside the house all seem fine, and the nagging unwarranted in that area. You also seem to be doing a commendable job sanitizing your house and yourself.
It is the visits from your BF and BFF that concern me, and they concern me enough so that, if I were your mother, I might nag you, too. You do not tell me whether you, your boyfriend, your friend, and her boyfriend (let’s call those last three Max, Ella, and Leland) are truly a closed coronavirus “pod.” Is your boyfriend Max in close contact with anybody other than you? Housemate, family, coworkers? If so, you have to include each of these contacts, and all their close contacts, and so on, as possible sources of infection. The same is true of Leland, of course: if he is in contact with anybody other than Ella, you should be wary of him—and of Ella, since she sees him. Don’t forget that it is possible to have COVID-19 and be a “silent spreader”—a source of infection yourself even if you haven’t yet, or don’t ever, develop symptoms. Unless you and Ella and Max and Leland really are a closed system, all four of you pose some risk to other people, and to one another, no matter how healthy you currently feel.
The principle is pretty much the same for COVID-19 as for STDs: you have to consider every contact’s partners’ partners, and their partners, and so on. The big difference of course, is that the virus is transmitted far more easily, and in many more ways. Short of staying behind closed doors at all times—which, for most of us, is harder to manage than avoiding unprotected non-monogamous sex—we can never be absolutely sure we are safe. But we can be reasonably sure if we take the precautions you already take, and strictly limit our at-home contacts. Please take care.
Not that any of this answers your question, which was not how to avoid getting the virus, or whether you have in fact been taking the appropriate precautions but, rather, how to keep your mother from nagging you. I chose to start with the issues behind the nagging because I want you and your friends to stay safe.
But I may also have been trying to avoid your question because maternal nagging is such an intractable problem. And nagging based on fear for your kid can be practically Pavlovian. Parents start worrying about their kids about 20 seconds after the positive pregnancy test and, even though this virus seems to be sparing most younger people for the time being, there is still enough peril out there—medical, economic, social, ecological, political, you name it—to make any parent worry. And when parents worry, they nag. I should know, since I am one of them.
My guess is that the best you can do about your mom’s nagging is to remind her of all the precautions you are already taking and, perhaps, point out that your chances of becoming seriously sick through the virus are vastly less than hers. You can demonstrate your familiarity with CDC and local guidelines and how well you follow them. And you can, I hope, reassure her now, or soon, on the closed-pod issue, if that is something she nags about. If not, for God’s sake don’t remind her.
Most important, just try to go easy on her, and at least pretend to listen to any advice she has to give. She may not have a lot to do except fuss and fret about you and any other precious, indispensable people in her life. I hope that there are a few, so the nagging gets spread around a bit.
By the way, your mom is being cautious, but properly so, about your staying outside her house when you visit. (See “silent spreader,” above.) A quick trip inside, disinfecting as you go and staying masked, probably would not cause any harm, but why take the risk without good reason?
One last point: I am a big fan of Shakespeare’s sonnets and applaud your using them as your hand-washing accompaniment. How long can a person sing “Happy Birthday” twice without starting to doubt the merits of personal hygiene? (These days I usually lather my hands to political prose, like the Preamble to the Constitution and the two chunks of the Gettysburg Address I can remember, all of which play out at about 25 seconds.)
I also admire your three sonnet choices. But I believe that, after several months of this, it is time for you to branch out. Learn two or three new ones now, while you have the time. I love #8, for some reason, maybe because it’s about music, and is itself musical. Also #130, especially “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” #29 (“When in disgrace…”) is great to declaim, and #98 is both lovely and topical, since we missed out on spring this year. But I would stay away from anything where he talks about Time in capital letters, and of course avoid #60, where our minutes hasten to their end.
With five or six sonnets in your quiver, you should be prepared for any pandemic.
But perhaps I digress. Stay safe, and try to visit your mom on windy days, which will help both to disperse viral droplets and modulate the sound of nagging.
As if it weren’t upsetting enough to fear for my life and my loved ones and the future of democracy and how long my employer is going to be in business, I am feeling really bad about the way I am handling this quarantine or stay-at-home order or whatever you call it. Like most people I know, my partner and I are working from home, and my job actually takes much less time than when I had to commute and lunch and schmooze. We live in a nice-enough place and don’t have kids at home to worry about.
I feel like I should see this as an opportunity, but except for a couple of my closest friends, it seems that everybody else in a situation like ours is making much better use of their time than I am—even my partner is following a rigorous exercise program, learning Italian, and helping set up a letter-writing and funding campaign for local candidates. Me, I overeat—and not even home-baked goodies, just the stuff we get delivered—and sleep in, and call my friends and family until they are probably sick of me, and then lie on the couch, scrolling through social media on my phone or watching CNN and MSNBC in horrified fascination. I only do chores when absolutely necessary for domestic peace. Meanwhile, all my Facebook and Instagram buddies and Zoom colleagues sound like my partner on steroids. The meals they post! The skills they’ve acquired! The modern operas they’ve streamed! The beauties of nature they have discovered and appreciated and recorded! The good deeds they have accomplished remotely!
This situation feels like a test of who we are, and it turns out that I’m not all that great. If I were Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I would wake up the same every morning, except fatter. What do you think is wrong with me? Do you have any ideas about why I am so bad at this?
Please, please go easy on yourself.
I don’t see anything wrong with you, unless you count paying too much attention to social media. You must know by now that personal social media wouldn’t last a week without posts designed to make people feel inadequate. Okay, they would still have animal antics and inflammatory politics. And of course there are some people (mostly grandparents) whose posts are just innocent bragging, and a smattering of others who honestly want to inform or amuse their friends. But most of what’s posted on social media is like holiday newsletters: bowdlerized, inflated, slanted, and cherry-picked, leaving the reader wondering why their LED-lit wreath from L. L. Bean suddenly looks so pathetic and banal. Think about it: if the people who post about those operas also watch NCIS reruns while eating Hostess Snoballs, are they going to tell you?
I note that the only other subpar quarantiners you know are among your “closest friends.” Could this be because you actually learned about their lives through close personal relationships and first-hand experience, not social media?
And even assuming that many people you know really are living fuller, more productive lives than you right now, so what? We all have to survive these times as best we can. If you come through this pandemic and this quarantine alive and sane, and haven’t intentionally or negligently hurt anybody else, I would count you a success—and it sounds as if you’re on track.
But it also sounds as if you are anxious and depressed. If so, and even if your depression or anxiety has reached clinical levels, you are far from alone: The Washington Post just reported that, for every 100 American adults, 34 show “clinically significant” symptoms of anxiety, depression or both. (I wonder how many of them are crying on the inside while they post images of laughter and Thai barbecue around the home fire-pit?) When I read the Post article, my first response was to wonder what was wrong with the other 66 Americans—and yet depression and anxiety, however “warranted” by the circumstances around us, sap our energy and strength and health and joy, and are well worth combating. It wouldn’t hurt for you to see somebody (if virtually, for now).
As I hope I have made clear, I do not think you are “bad at this,” and doubt whether the concept even makes sense. But I do think you would be considerably happier—and possibly more active and energetic and generally Facebook-worthy, but that’s icing on the cake—if you take control of your overall screen time. There are apps for this. I prefer the simpler method of setting an alarm on my phone and then jumping up and heading outside with the dog or into the shower but, if alarms don’t work for you, you can always find an app that will record your screen time, admonish you, time-limit certain activities, etc. Try not only to disregard most of your social media, but also to see less of it.
Then there are the news and commentary channels. These—the two you mention, in fact: CNN and MSNBC—happen to be bones of contention in our house. Ward loves to watch them on our living room TV, and to have them play in the background while he does the crossword and goes through the mail and so on. I am usually good for about a half-hour at a stretch, at which point I start getting angry and impatient and even feel a little sick—not because I disbelieve the what I hear, but because I do believe it and would just as soon not have to hear any of it more than once, if that. It’s important to learn what’s going on, of course, but I find that I can only cope with a certain level of repetition and vitriol.
Neither of us is right: what energizes Ward enervates me. I therefore do my best to limit my TV news time and focus on radio and, best of all, print media, preferably actually in printed form (Nice heft! No soul-sucking comment section!) You sound more like me than like Ward, so I strongly suggest that you do likewise.
In sum: do what you will. If you can, try for the middle ground, somewhere between perfection and self-destructive wallowing. Don’t obsess about eating and exercise, but do get off the couch a bit more often (I lure myself outside with silly podcasts) and try to keep that COVID 15 to 15 (mine’s hovering around 14, and that’s on top of a recent knee-injury 20). But if you blow it, what’s the big deal? What does it matter on the world-disaster scale?
As for all those phone calls you make to your friends and family, keep at it. I am sure they love hearing from you, and it is always better to err on the side of more rather than less attention to your loved ones during an isolating time like this.
—Onward and upward!
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.