The Friday before Hurricane Isaias visited, my friend shared how his daughter had tested positive for COVID-19. His brow tightened in frustration above his mask. We struggled to loosen a nut from an uncooperative bolt without damaging the old, dinged-up boat we were preparing to evacuate from the Cape Fear River Rowing Club boathouse at the marina.
“Such a missed opportunity to pull together,” he grunted.
I helped balance the fragile craft in slings. A dozen other club members, all wearing masks, struggled to complete their storm prep assignments.
“Imagine where we’d be now if the president had stood behind the science in March when it became clear how serious the pandemic was. Heck, mail 300 million masks with American flags on them!” My friend said, pausing to readjust his mask. “Wearing a mask isn’t about masculinity or freedom. A pandemic is not a Republican or Democrat issue. Instead of pushing people even further apart, this crisis could have really pulled us together.”
I nodded in solemn, silent agreement. We solved the unwanted problem of getting an uncooperative nut off the boat, loaded the club’s boats on the trailer for evacuation. As we parted, my friend said, “It’s going to get better.”
I smiled at his optimism. Rowers are used to pulling together and we’re relentlessly optimistic on the water. (That’s what “ROW” stands for.) We’re also relentlessly optimistic off the water. Our growing region now supports two rowing clubs full of optimistic sorts, the Cape Fear River Rowing Club based at the marina and the Eagle Island Rowing Club based in Leland. Neither has enjoyed the water much this season because of COVID restrictions. Each has retained optimism we will get back on the water—back to solving desirable problems, such as how to find balance and flow in an ever-changing river, and where the best spots are for taking pictures of sunrises and dolphins.
Like almost everyone else in the world, we’ve traded desirable ideas for pandemic-related problems we are required to solve. How do we pay our bills if our jobs aren’t considered “essential”? How do we maintain social distancing and stay emotionally connected? How do we maintain some physical fitness and sanity through a necessary quarantine? How many Zoom meetings can we tolerate in one week? How do we get the nut off the boat without damaging the fragile craft even further? (No, I don’t mean how do we get Ol’ 45 out of the White House, but the comparison does work.)
For me, a measure of effective problem-solving isn’t whether a person can solve problems they want to solve, it’s whether they can pull together emotional and cognitive resources to solve problems they’d prefer not to have. Ol’ 45 may have aced the “person-man-woman-camera-TV” test, but he and his administration have been unprepared and unwilling to tackle problems they don’t want to have.
“How do I get re-elected? How can I build my brand during my time in the White House?” I can see Ol ’45 and many presidents pondering solutions to those problems. Those are easy problems compared to, “How do I prevent the U.S. from leading the world in infection and deaths related to the novel coronavirus?”
The morning after Isaias blew through, I cleared debris, secured a section of torn-up fence, and solved a series of unwanted problems. My friend’s words about our nation’s anemic response to the pandemic echoed. “Missed opportunity to pull together.”
After decades of increasing divisiveness left-leaning and right-leaning friends alike have said, “We need a common enemy. We’ll set aside our differences when an asteroid is about to hit.”
Whether our eyes are open to it or not, we live in an asteroid belt. Climate change, systemic racism, and 2020’s global pandemic are all asteroids with devastating destructive potential. Right now, America still has a tremendous opportunity to pull together to meet each of these challenges.
Or we could follow Ol’ impeached 45’s example, close our eyes, and like a petulant teenager confronted about his lack of preparation for a major asteroid exam, say, “It is what it is.”