Op/Ed

Jessie Raymond: No longer wallowing in others’ germs

Welcome to the new normal. Are we having fun yet?
Vermont is more than a week into the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order to minimize the spread of coronavirus, and I’m all in.
But I have it easy. Some people have closed up shop or been laid off. Others, considered “essential employees,” risk their health each day to provide necessary services to the rest of us. We copy editors, it turns out, are “nonessential.”
That hurts a little.
I’ve become one of those spoiled work-from-home people. I still have a job, and I don’t have to interact face-to-face with the public. In terms of coronavirus, it’s a win-win.
Luckily, I enjoy always being home. But the sameness of every day can be tough for some.
For instance, if you live alone, you are now alone all the time. And if you live with family, you may already be feeling that your dearest loved ones, like all good things, would be better enjoyed in moderation.
I’m just impressed that so many people are doing what I always have: avoiding crowds and baking bread. It’s not that bad, is it?
Now, instead of going to the office, I meet virtually with my coworkers on the videoconference platform Zoom. The meetings are the same as usual, except I yell at everyone. (I’m not angry; I just have a hard time believing they can hear me through cyberspace.)
My biggest adjustment has been reducing my forays into public from about three per week to one, a feat I’ve always aimed for but have never achieved until now. If I could just get the family to give up eating, I’d never have to leave the house.
That one weekly trip to the store, however, is fraught. It’s when I feel most vulnerable, virus-wise. And while I applaud the many precautions stores are taking to protect customers and staff, the heightened attention to hygiene puts me on edge.
The other day at the Co-op, I got thinking about how the most alarming thing you can do in public now is cough. The idea so consumed me I could barely prevent myself from breaking into a spontaneous coughing fit.
Fearing a mass panic, I fought the impulse. I didn’t want to risk people getting trampled as they fled the scene. To distract myself from thoughts of coughing, I concentrated instead on not touching my face. 
That only made my nose itch uncontrollably.
At home, I’m more at ease. But a cloud of anxiety still hangs over me, especially now that COVID-19 has reached our community. I’m starting to suspect that gorging myself on a near-constant diet of news, social media and coronavirus statistics isn’t the best relaxation strategy. 
I take breaks, though. For example, for fun the other night we watched “Contagion.” I read Poe’s “The Red Masque of Death” over the weekend, and I’m partway through Stephen King’s “The Stand.”
So far, however, escapism hasn’t helped much. 
I find myself waking up almost every night around 3 a.m., my mind racing. Is everything going to be OK? Will the economy recover? Where could I have lost the vegetable peeler? Will we run out of food? What if one of us gets sick? How long will this last? Could I have thrown it out with the compost? 
In daylight, the world feels more manageable, and I’ve discovered that outdoor activities, like walking and looking for the vegetable peeler in the compost, calm me down. I suppose indoor work, such as vacuuming, might do the same; I may try it if things get bad.
I just feel powerless knowing that things will get worse before they get better. And the vast changes we’ve made as a society, while necessary, are unnerving; the new normal is pretty weird.
Do you remember how it used to be, just a few weeks ago? We could leave the house for any old reason. We coughed in public without fear of causing a riot. We invaded strangers’ personal space. We only washed our hands on special occasions (and even then not for 20 seconds).
We were filthy animals who mingled freely and wallowed in each other’s germs without worrying about endangering large swaths of the population.
Now that we know better, those days are over.
But they were fun while they lasted.

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