My family has been quarantining hard for close to 5 months. (It’s not as cool as rocking hard or partying hard, but it’s decidedly safer and yields zero hangovers.) Now with last week’s relieved-gasp-inducing news that Widener will go virtual this fall, it appears that the 4 of us will continue seeing a whole lot of each other for the indefinite future.
It’s wonderful news for everyone in our home — except, perhaps, my wife. Some of you may not know this about me, but I can be… a bit much at times. The incessant wordplay and shameless punnery are a little exhausting, and I’m not necessarily the least codependent guy who has ever ventured into a marriage. One might say I have the insistent affection of a Golden Retriever, just without the natural charm or the kissable face (albeit just as fuzzy). But Danielle is a trooper, and I’m sure she’ll find a way to cope somehow. Please keep her in your thoughts and prayers.
All jokes aside, though, this Widener news is a truly profound relief for us. I am awash in gratitude to know that I will not have to put myself (and thus my wife, kids, and parents) in harm’s way this fall.
The Mother of all Caveats
Let me first be abundantly clear: I ache for anyone who, in order to support their family and/or not derail their desired career, will now be forced to physically visit a school or workplace on a daily basis despite the sadly well-documented risks of population density during a pandemic. I cringe to think of my friends, relatives, and neighbors who simply have no choice other than to keep working.
In the United States, we are uniquely shackled to our paychecks — and the health insurance that is nearly always bound up in those paychecks. If Widener had decided to have in-person classes, I would have felt my hands were tied. Not having affordable health care in this country is a recipe for looming bankruptcy. And I’m not a trust fund kid.
So I simply would have shown up and earned my paycheck, with tremors of fear in my heart. No one should be in that position, but tens of millions currently are. It’s a brutal state of affairs that Congress needs to address (but very likely won’t) by creating legislation protecting employees.
To all of you reading this who are in the position I describe, I am deeply sorry. My empathy doesn’t help you, but I offer it nonetheless.
Having outlined that caveat, and with much more that could and should be said on behalf of my brow-furrowed fellow citizens, I want to document for posterity’s sake why this is such a deep and abiding relief for me and my family. And I want to advocate for why I see it as a life-affirming — and life-preserving — gift from Widener to its staff, faculty, and student body.
Reason #1: Quality of Life (Quantity of Nature Time)
Safety is the preeminent practical concern during a pandemic, but I’ll start with the reasons that hit closer to home. The most emotionally significant reason that I’m grateful to be working from home is that it gives me so much extra time with my family, doing the things that make me feel alive.
Consider this: I usually have a 40-minute morning commute, a 60-minute lunch break (with not nearly enough time to drive home from Harrisburg), and a 45-to-50-minute evening commute. That adds up to almost 2 ½ hours every weekday of my life that is spent (A) all by myself, (B) not making money, and in fact (C) spending a lot of money on gas.
Now take those 2 ½ hours and reallocate them for (A) longer morning walks with the kids, (B) longer morning storytimes with the kids, (C) eating breakfast with the family, (D) lunch walks with the family, and (E) pre-dinner woods walks with the kids. All of which vastly improve my mental health by (A) putting me next to the people who mean the most to me, (B) giving me an extra hour of fresh air every day, and (C) extricating me from the nauseating crush of gridlock that tends to make me curse at stoplights and fellow motorists under my breath. (And sometimes not under my breath.)
It would be difficult to overstate the value of that trade-off. People say that time is money. But I say…
Time is life itself.
Reason #2: A Penny Saved (A Penny Earned)
Having said that, time is also money. And money is indeed a factor in my life, given that I have 2 kids and a mortgage. I was surprised to recently crunch the numbers and learn this fun fact: We are saving a good chunk of money while I work from home.
Given that I have a 30-mile commute, I spend roughly $130 a month in gas money. That’s over $1,500 in one calendar year that our family will not spend, if this thing ends up dragging on that long. Even when you factor in the loss of a few discretionary hours per week (which I successfully lobbied for years ago) that I will be unable to work now that I’m at home, there is still a decent net gain from not commuting. And when you then add in the massive drop in wear and tear on my 2008 Dodge Caliber, which annually logs 15,000 commuting miles and now is closer to zero (since we exclusively use the minivan), it’s more realistic to think that we’re saving between $1,000 and $2,000 a year.
That’s not pocket change. In fact, it’s like getting 1 to 2 extra paychecks.
[Side note: The environment isn’t complaining either.]
Reason #3: Safe (Inside) & Sound (In Mind)
Even if the first two reasons weren’t relevant — if we were breaking even and if I didn’t enjoy the extra time with my kids for some odd reason — this third one would still be enough to overwhelm me with gratitude. I am thankful to be working remotely because I will feel exponentially safer at home than at work this fall.
Envisioning my return to campus over the last few months has unsettled me again and again. And both times I paid a visit to Widener between mid-March and late July, even with almost no one else on campus at the time, I felt even more unsettled.
During a regular semester, the building I work in has a high population density. My office is smack dab in the middle of a heavily trafficked faculty hallway, and both professors and students enter my office regularly for any number of reasons. Ventilation is also fairly nonexistent in my windowless workspace. Under normal circumstances, I don’t mind any of these factors (other than the sunlight deprivation that comes from not having a window). In fact, I quite enjoy rubbing shoulders with all those folks.
But of course, these are anything but normal circumstances. And shoulder-rubbing isn’t exactly what the CDC is recommending right now.
Given that I see my 70-something parents on a weekly basis, both Danielle and I are hyperaware of any points of contact we make in the world. And visiting a campus 5 days a week, or even 2 days a week which was on the table as an option at one point, would render me uncertain whether I should risk any close physical proximity to my parents.
And that doesn’t even speak to my proximity to my own family, given that we now know that children can contract COVID too. Not to mention wives of affectionate, Golden Retriever-like husbands.
In short, working on campus would sabotage my entire way of life. It would make it untenable, or at the very least unsettling to the extreme. COVID’s lagging indicators make it a uniquely insidious virus that undermines the most basic logistics of living one’s life. And our country’s persistent, bewildering lack of a nationwide fast-test infrastructure (presidents and athletes have access to fast tests, but the rest of us don’t?) just adds to the logistical chaos.
Given these truly unfortunate and destabilizing realities, which will likely continue until we have a new administration willing to deal head-on with COVID, working from home is the most viable option for containing the spread and protecting one’s own family.
Sadly, millions of Americans don’t have any such option. I am sickened by that fact and shudder on a daily basis when I think about it. The calculus of who can stay home and who is deemed an “essential” in-person worker is a brutal equation. It turns people into mere cogs in capitalism’s unthinking, unfeeling, perpetual-motion machine.
Having said that, and not being in a position of influence, all I can do is be grateful for the safety that has been granted to me by the Widener powers that be. Their decision to go virtual this fall will prevent our Harrisburg campus from becoming yet another hot spot.
And it will allow my little family to continue quarantining like it’s 1999 (assuming that people quarantined right before Y2K).
While our nation waits impatiently and feverishly for a hugely crucial vaccine and a hugely crucial election, the 4 of us here in rural Dillsburg now have the ability to maintain our strenuously frugal family budget and continue living our peacefully rural little life.
All while we stay, for the time being, safe inside.
And, as much as can be expected, sound of mind.
It feels like a gift, given in good faith to all of us Widener folk by its humane, thoughtful, conscience-driven president.
On behalf of my family, I receive that gift with open arms.