Pondering My Pandemic Year in Seattle
By Brian Grant
Covid-19 has been disruptive to our world this year. Such an understatement to say this out loud! The impact of the pandemic of course differs among individuals, communities and nations. It would lack compassion to not acknowledge that for many it has been catastrophic and deadly. So many lives lost, families and communities bereaved, and dreams destroyed. They are always in our thoughts. To date, I have not personally been damaged or bereaved by Covid. This is a matter of good luck and privilege, not virtue or plan.
My thoughts about my pandemic year fall into four categories: the personal, the professional, the macro-picture of society, and the future:
The personal: My life has always been full of things to do and places to go. To be precise, pre-pandemic, my life was hyper-scheduled. But this year, cultural events like theater, dance, classical music or nights out were and are no more. My sports tickets were cancelled. No more baseball or soccer to enjoy. Dinner out? Forget about it. Vacations and live professional meetings? No more. People? Far fewer. Many have grown wary, become voluntarily homebound, and fear death. Everyone has become a Dr. Fauci and seen fit to be outspoken, whether in favor of more restrictions, or feeling intruded upon by these same restrictions.
As a result, the pandemic has given me time--a gift that has been hard to receive. For the first time ever, I have empty days on my calendar, with no reservations or required activities or commitments. Such days have allowed me to sleep in. I respond to the moment. I take walks, read books – novels, poetry, nonfiction, watch series and films on streaming platforms, and spend more time with my wife, kids, and grandkids. Most of all I have spent time with myself, and this has been a bit of a challenge at times. In the past year I have started studying poetry, so the week’s assignment is always in the back of my mind. This imposed free time is superimposed on the current downsizing of my professional commitments as I slowly slide into semi-retirement.
The Professional: As I write this, I am attending a professional meeting in New York. Well, not really. I am at my desk in Seattle, watching speakers online via Zoom. I last attended this meeting live in Manhattan in February of last year. Little did I know it was the last time I would travel for business. I always looked forward to this annual trip to New York – to take in the vibrant city, see a few plays, visit some friends and associates, and learn a bit.
In 2018, after 35 years, a business I had founded and grown was sold in a meaningful transaction. This freed up a great portion of my life. Little did I know the bullet I dodged by not having to manage and survive the business challenges posed by the pandemic! My business, like many, would have taken a major hit to revenue and earnings. I would have had the angst and massive stressors of dealing with this. I would likely have had to downsize and say goodbye to employees and colleagues. And the value of the business would have been much less. Instead, I was able to say goodbye to this part of my life, the constant hum and stress of management, and the ever-present threat of business failure, competitors, and staff challenges. I was breathing free after this sale, and as the pandemic started, floating on air at my unanticipated good fortune on many levels.
BEFORE THE PANDEMCI?, I also refocused on my first profession of psychiatry. I have always had a love of therapy, both as a patient who underwent an invaluable psychoanalysis years ago and continues in weekly therapy, and as a psychodynamic psychotherapist, practicing part-time. After selling the business, I moved to a small office in a downtown Seattle business suite, where I have been treating 10-15 patients a week in hourly sessions. I may prescribe medications for a few, but only work with individuals who are also in therapy. Through their experiences, I am seeing how the pandemic impacts others in their work and relationships.
Due to the pandemic, some patients have been reluctant to come in to be seen and others have even moved out of the area termporarilty or permanently. I and many other physicians discovered telemedicine. In my case, I use Zoom, though there are other platforms available. This has allowed me to continue to work with some who would otherwise not have access to me and vice versa. While I still work person-to-person at about a seven-foot distance, I can also work from my home office, at varying hours that are quite flexible for all, across a few miles or a few thousand. Some colleagues have given up their offices altogether and have moved fully to telemedicine. Licensing boards have become flexible in allowing cross-state practice by practitioners licensed in other states, and insurance carriers have been innovative in allowing payment for telemedicine services.
Society: This is of great concern to me. I live in Seattle and to say things are a mess would be an understatement. I am sure many of you have seen news coverage of my beautiful city. We are faced with a leadership gap that has allowed incivility and crime to flourish. Tents of drug-impaired vagrants abound on public lands like parks and rights-of-way. Package thefts, car prowls, and shoplifting are routine and go largely unpunished. Graffiti and vandalism are a new normal. Politicians posture and excuse the inexcusable. Stores are boarded up and closing. Business district streets are largely empty and avoided by many people concerned for their health and safety. The class divide widens, and many people are snipping at each other and angry. This of course intersects with Black Lives Matter, the Trumpist rage machine, and many unemployed service workers with a lot of time on their hands and a deficit of hope.
My grandkids have attended school both at home online and now are back in the classroom at their independent school. However, my daughter, their mother, who teaches high school math in Seattle is still working hard online. Sadly, the district has dumbed down and, in the interest of a perverted sense of social justice, is allowing kids to turn off the cameras on their computers. This has contributed to many of them not actually attending classes and not learning. It is obvious that the class divide will widen, with those kids who are being guided and attended to by their parents and schools gaining further advantage over those whose remote learning is not being supervised or attendance enforced. In some cases, this is because their parents work outside the home, or for whatever reason are unable or unwilling to oversee their kids’ engagement. This will create a long-term impact that will be hard or impossible to recover from. Let’s hope that teachers and students return to classrooms quickly if they have not done so already.
The impact on so many workers who can’t effectively work remotely is immeasurable. I am friends with many performing artists, including classical musicians. Many of these individuals, often at the top of their professions, have lost most of their income and are reduced to scrapping by, if they are lucky, on public grants or returning to their parents’ homes. Some lucky ones, like those who are in our Seattle Symphony, are receiving a portion of their salary.
The only good news for local society in Seattle is that our prior traffic tie-ups are largely a thing of the past Driving is a pleasure on empty highways; my local park, Volunteer Park, a real gem, has never had so many people visiting and enjoying the lawn and footpaths. Dogs seem very happy and well-loved, since their owners now have time to take them on long walks.
The Future: It is obvious that lessons learned and forced adjustments of the pandemic will not disappear when it is under control. Expectations and norms will need to adjust. There will be winners and losers. Winners will be those who have been able to pivot to the online world. Amazon is among them and its profits have soared. Online media likewise are thriving. Losers will include commercial office real estate. Many businesses, especially those that employ higher paid professionals, have realized that they do not need to rent large offices. They can thrive with far less space, allowing for the occasional live meeting, client visits, places for employees to escape their homes on occasion, all while being quite productive and having much lower occupancy costs. Commercial rents are plummeting and sublets by those who have existing leases are abundant. I would imagine that law firms, financial or engineering firms are among these. Some tech companies are going entirely virtual.
Besides the owners of these buildings, the businesses that rely upon commuters will feel the pain. Restaurants, retail, transit, parking and centrally located other urban assets will see a long-term impact. Many employees will resist calls to return to the office and I predict fights and litigation on this front. I am a tad cynical that one can rely upon good intentions to obtain the full attention of all who are claiming to be working while at home, unless there are clear metrics that are being measured and enforced. Time will tell. Likewise, the rental market is going to soften in expensive cities as workers have less to draw them to abandoned central neighborhoods and find they can be productive and employed farther afield, where they are able to afford to purchase homes and improve their living standards.
Will we be willing to gather together? It will take some time for all to be vaccinated, or at least enough to allow for a sense of security. Will we conquer Covid-19 or have to contend with new variants or other pandemic threats? I love concerts and theater and support the nonprofit arts sector with my subscriptions, time, and contributions. What will this sector look like in terms of audiences? Likewise, live sports? The aesthetics and comfort of masks leave much to be desired and I certainly hope that we can get rid of them as soon as the data allows.
When will leisure travel, both local and global, resume with enthusiasm? The pent-up demand will likely not turn on suddenly. It is ironic that I personally now have the time and resources to go places, but lack the ability to cross certain borders (like nearby Canada) ,. Nor do I desire to visit places that are still under threat or partially shut-down. As Yogi Berra: famously said, “The future ain’t what is used to be.”
P.S. In early January, I found myself at home for three solid days (a record for me) and reflected upon the experience. It is written in a classical form of a Ghazal:
Staying Home – a Ghazal
Sleeping late wake comes unbidden
I see no reason to leave home
winter days get longer but still short
while I stay home
A few steps taken outdoors
not straying or leaving my home
No need exists to stay, or reason to leave,
now Day 3, in place at home
space constricts with geography
defined by rooms of this home
How to spend time, in serious thought,
while regarding the exercise of staying home
There is no meaning to what has happened,
to anyone but me, self-confined to home
No principles inform the act of remaining
meaning the act itself, to myself, driven home
No goal in mind the street looks
welcoming, saying leave home
And I will open the door, and depart
a walk to the park, and I return home