The Pandemic Dialogues (part I)

The phone rang.  I looked down at my desktop and saw a 307 number–Wyoming–but not one I recognized.  I picked it up.  

 Three weeks earlier in mid-March, NOLS had decided to pull all our students from the field.  As a worldwide outdoor education company, that meant a strategic, coordinated effort to get students safely and efficiently from deep canyons in Southern Utah, remote cordilleras in Chilean Patagonia, thick, bush on New Zealand’s west coast, cold, snowy, Teton forests, turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez, and so many places in between. A week later, when the last student departed Wyoming, heading on to points unknown I, as a program administrator, started working from home.  The coming Wednesday would be the day we would learn how the company would restructure in light of The COVID.  Deep cuts were expected.  Outside my window grey clouds swirled and cottonwoods bent with the wind.  

 I pushed the rounded button and held the small grey device to my ear; “this is Jared.”   

 “Jared, Jen Sall” the voice on the other side said, in her usual, direct fashion.    We exchanged pleasantries. “Can you meet with me and Haegel sometime today?”  It was the time of The COVID.  I had no plans.  Jen managed NOLS’ Rocky Mountain location and operations where I worked and Anna Haegel was my best friend and supervisor; bile worked up into my esophagus, I felt a pinching in my stomach.

 “Yeah, sure. . . can you give me a heads up as to what it is about?” I asked, nervous, knowing that significant layoffs and restructuring are coming down the pipe and I am about to have a meeting with my direct supervisor and her boss.  My curiosity is piqued.  

“Uh. . . no, I think I would rather not tell you. . . I think it can wait, but, I’ll say, for your benefit, you are not about to lose your job.”  I let out a breathe and felt a small weight lifted off my shoulders.  “I would love to meet in person if possible, maybe Haegel’s backyard?”  Out the window the sun was trying to subdue the grayness; any small reason to hope.  “We can do it online if the weather is poor.”  

 “That sounds fine. When?”  I tapped the iPad on my desk to see the time.

 “Does one work in your world?”  

 It was the time of The COVID; I had nothing going on. “Yep, sounds good.”

 “We’ll stay appropriately distanced.  I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

 We hung up.  I turned back toward a laptop on the desk.  Four hours to let my mind wander the desert of uncertainty.  Distraction came in routing, sanding, and varnishing trim for my closet, an ongoing project I felt lucky to have. 

 Later, a text came from Jen: we are going to use Anna’s front porch, too windy for the backyard, not inside and airy enough for social distancing.  I was dirty, probably smelly too.  Remodel projects had me covered in saw dust, paint, and debris so I pulled on clean jeans and my nicest shoes: a pair of well-worn cowboy boots.  They slid on easily and I realized I hadn’t put them on in several months.  I grabbed my laptop bag, threw it over my shoulder, and headed out the door.  The ride was quick, two blocks, and I rode up onto Anna’s lawn, as I had a hundred times before, avoiding the lingering snowbank.  On the porch of the small craftsman Anna had arranged three chairs and was spraying them down with a bleach solution.  I climbed the stairs with my usual drawled “how’s it goin?”  We didn’t touch.  Inside, Emma, a yellow, sixty pound pit bull with a hard wagging tail that is slapping the door, is excited to see me.  

 Behind me Jen climbed the steps.  “Nice boots,” she offered as she took a seat, lowering her six foot frame into a stackable, patio style, chair.  

“Nice vest.” I reply, referencing her red, slightly dingy down vest, of which we both own the same style (and coloration).  Again, we exchange pleasantries.  Anna sits to my right, Jen across the from me.  She leans forward, elbows on her knees, hands clasped.  She peers at me through her clear, thick framed,  round, glasses.

 “Jared, I want to offer you a job opportunity;” Jen cuts to the chase.  “We want you to spend the next couple months over at Three Peaks helping McKenzie manage the herd.  You’ll keep your benefits and hourly wage, but you’ll only work fifteen hours a week.”  My shoulders drop and I suppress a smile.  I wonder if my coworkers are having similar pre-Wednesday meetings.  “After Wednesday” she continues “there will be no more program team, everyone is getting laid off.  You can either take this option or be laid off.”  My question is answered.

 I sat in silence, uncertain whether to smile or cry as a wave of sadness plows into me.  The reality.  The words were hard but not harsh.  There was solace in the history and 15 years of friendship Anna and I had built through work and climbing.  There was comfort in the knowledge that Jen respected me and my work.  There was so much care and humanity in the people before me; it flows both ways.  My heart sank and soared, my stomach fluttered, tears welled; paradox and complexity ever present. 

I stared at my boots and wonder what made me put them on this afternoon. 

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A little bit less of a nomad now, Jared still likes to refer to himself in the third person.

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