With plenty of time on my hands, I’ve been thinking of how COVID-19’s “shelter-at-home” and “social isolation” has such drastically different effects on different age groups. I am now semi-retired with a pension and Social Security and better able to deal with a pandemic-caused societal shutdown than any other time in my life. Is this what they meant by the “golden years”? Doesn’t seem fair.
Come along as I travel back to some typical years for baby boomers with a make-believe pandemic and imagine how things might have been.
Start with the early 1960s, when I was in about fifth grade. I would have been overjoyed to not have school for any reason. It would have saved me the time and energy of faking being sick and pretending I had done my homework. My parents, with eight kids in a three-bedroom house, would have been beside themselves. My father was a car salesman, and our family income depended on his commissions, so money would have been tighter than it already was. My mother would be ingenious with making up tasks, like counting the buttons in her button jar and voting on what dessert to bake for dinner, but she would have been worn out after 30 days. Heaven forbid, as she would say, no one got sick and required isolation. Fortunately, we lived on 7 acres in an old farmhouse that offered lots of running room and many fix-up projects that required our time. The boys, of which there were five ranging in age from 4 to 15 that year, would have slept out in the woods most nights from about May 1 through the summer. I might look back on that time as the golden years of my youth.
A few years later, say junior high, would have been rougher. I most likely would have been bored with the out-of-doors, with the books in the house and with being a big brother to lots of sibs. We would have argued endlessly about whether COVID-19 really existed, who had the power to tell us to stay home and when this isolation might be over. We would all be tired of tuna noodle casserole. My grandfather, who missed our grandmother, would call and want to talk about the 1918 Great Influenza, and I wouldn’t want to listen. I would tell him, “That was so long ago. It won’t ever happen again. If we can go to the moon, we can cure all that stuff.” My sisters would complain about him tying up our only phone. Once my father decided this was the year to expand the garden, he would have found six second-hand shovels and told us, “Keep digging.”
High school senior year would have been frustrating, with my last season of running track canceled, losing my part-time job washing cars and not having anywhere to go now that I could drive. Cabin fever mixed with senioritis is a volatile mix. Fortunately, the year before we had fixed up the basement for a bedroom that I shared with my older brother, so I could “hang out” and listen to our transistor radio. I finally asked a girl to the prom, but it would be canceled. No one would be able to sign my yearbook. My older brother and sister would return home from college, taking my place as “the oldest.” And they say, “These are the best years of your life”?
Freshman year in college with a pandemic would have turned into a bummer, after starting out with such promise. By March, I had finally made some friends, and I knew that I could do college work when we were sent home, where I would find that my bed and dresser had been taken over by a little brother. There would be no summer jobs. My parents would not set a curfew because there was no place to go. I heard there are books about other pandemics, but the public library would be closed.
Senior year in college would be disappointing and discouraging. I was called back for a job interview, but it would be canceled. I would move back home without going to graduation. We would mail our term papers to our professors, who would grade them over the summer and turn our “incompletes” into real letter grades. All that was on TV that year was the Watergate hearings.
Graduate school with a pandemic would be OK but mixed with apprehension. I would sleep in often but put the time to good use catching up on seminar readings because we could not meet at downtown bars for heavy conversation. We would worry that some universities might never reopen and academic jobs would disappear.
Starting a career, say as a professor at Mizzou in the mid-1980s, would have caused anxiety for all young faculty. The university would be closed, professional mail would be stopped and academic meetings would be canceled. If I didn’t publish, I would surely perish. I’d be under all kinds of new pressures. Having a family with young children and no office to go to would be challenging. There would be worries about university budget cuts, kids getting sick, how to replace the worn-out car and if the preschool would reopen. Reading “Green Eggs and Ham” again and again would be tougher than epistemology. We would worry about my mother, who had just moved into a retirement home for a sense of community but now sat alone in her room. My senior colleagues would surely have an easier life.
Retirement is good preparation for surviving a pandemic. No mandatory meetings, no deadlines to meet. There is plenty of time for walks. I had already started watching TV shows from the ‘70s and ‘80s that I missed. It’s a pity we can’t travel. I re-read old books that seem new. By now there is cable and the internet so I can stream the news 24/7 and see the Cardinals win the 2011 World Series again — and again. We had a Zoom family meeting the other day to sing Happy Birthday to my sister turning 72. Life can be sweet.