Yes, convenience has a dark side. That doesn’t mean we’re wrong to want it.
When the test came back positive, Rachel and I were renting an apartment with another couple near the Colorado-New Mexico border. It was supposed to be an ordinary weekend getaway: hiking, cooking, late-night conversation over wine. We’d come down from Denver the night before—our friends had driven up from Santa Fe—and our suitcases weren’t yet unpacked. Someone had spread a trail map across the coffee table. Our kids’ toys were already strewn across the floor. Just two couples and their three-year-olds, trying to pretend things were normal.
Pictured above, Joe Fassler’s son, Luke, opening takeout during their quarantine.
Of course, nothing was normal. Infection rates were ramping up again, the first uptick in the dramatic spike we’re seeing now. The day before, 53,000 people had been diagnosed with Covid-19 in the U.S., and the virus claimed 865 lives. It was Friday, October 2nd—the same day the president revealed that he was positive. This development felt both inevitable and seismic. Driving down that night, Rachel drove while I stayed glued to my phone, reading updates aloud about the president’s rapidly devolving condition, each new detail more surreal than the last.
We were trying to escape the endless march of homebound days, the churn of the Covid-19 news cycle. We didn’t yet realize we’d brought the pandemic with us.
Saturday afternoon, we chopped up some potatoes and cauliflower for an improvised lunch; we’d brought odds and ends from home we didn’t want to spoil. Once the meal was seasoned and roasting in the oven, Rachel wanted to see if her test results had come in yet. Mine had already come back negative, as had our son’s. We’d taken precautions. We had no reason to think she was sick.
There was this startled sound, and everything stopped.
“Oh my god,” Rachel was saying, though it took a second for my brain to parse the words. “I have it. I have Covid.”
She spoke through her hands, which were cupped over her nose and mouth, but I could see the panic in her eyes. I took this as an involuntary gesture—of horror, of terror, of shame. Later I realized she was fashioning an emergency mask from her palms, trying to save us all from her dangerous breath.
I took our lunch from the oven and tossed it. It was no longer something anyone would eat.
What happened next was a chaos. Our friends shut themselves away upstairs. We stuck our son, Luke, in a room with his toys. Rachel self-exiled to the back deck with her laptop, where she sat frantically googling. And I was left to pack and sanitize the house. I opened the windows, cleaned all the dishes, wiped off everything down to the light switches. I took our lunch from the oven and tossed it. It was no longer something anyone would eat.
Then we were on the road again, heading home. We drove for five hours with masks on and windows down, the wind too loud to talk over. In the back seat, our son—despondent over the ruined vacation—pulled his blanket over his head.
What I remember most is the anger. We had so many questions no one could answer, and all our fear and uncertainty soured into rage. The night before, the situation in the White House had struck me as a bungling display of incompetence, with an air of poetic justice: Want to hold a maskless Rose Garden party? This is what you get. But as we drove, the recklessness of the government response appalled, then enraged me. If even high-ranking officials were getting themselves infected, no help was coming. We were so alone in this.
The roles of full-time father and full-time chef overlapped uneasily, while the usual efficiencies were out of reach.
After reviewing our options online, we decided all three of us would quarantine completely for two weeks. (We later received these instructions formally, in a call from the health department.) Rachel shut herself away in the guest room over our garage. Luke couldn’t go to preschool. And I took emergency medical leave from my work at The Counter. For two weeks, Luke and I would only see Rachel through her window. For two weeks, I would be a single parent.
My three-year-old is like many three-year-olds: heavily dependent. Without supervision, Luke will start inspecting the electrical outlets or attacking the kitchen table with a screwdriver. Like a house cat, he demands my constant gaze. I could try to write an email, but before long he’d be pulling at my pant leg, crawling on my shoulders, laying flat across my laptop keyboard. I made peace with that.
I wanted to enjoy my unexpected furlough, to relish the sudden and strange reprieve that gave us an expanse of time together. Yet I quickly realized that a second responsibility would complicate things: All three of us needed to eat, but only I had access to our kitchen. That whole time in quarantine, only I would feed us.
I quickly realized that a second responsibility would complicate things: All three of us needed to eat, but only I had access to our kitchen.
At first, I readily accepted the challenge. I love to cook, and under normal conditions I’ll prepare three meals a day for my family—oatmeal or eggs for breakfast, a lunchtime salad while Luke’s in school, something more ambitious for dinner. I spend all day working with words on a screen; the tactile, analog world of the stovetop is a welcome counterpoint. In quarantine, I made cornbread, buckwheat pancakes with bacon. I threw together a caprese salad with that week’s CSA tomatoes and some basil from our yard. I left Rachel’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner outside the door to the garage. Except for water, she consumed nothing I didn’t prepare—from her morning coffee to a small scoop of ice cream at night.
But with Luke home, cooking could only happen on stolen time, in the moments when he was distracted enough not to miss me. Often, when I’d sneak off to start meal prep, a kind of groveling match ensued: Luke would beg me to help him finish his latest Lego project, while I’d beg him for a few more minutes to get something in the oven. The roles of full-time father and full-time chef overlapped uneasily, while the usual efficiencies were out of reach.
At night, for instance, Rachel and I usually trade off: One of us will put Luke to bed, an hour-long winding-down that includes the reading of at least five books, while the other one does the dishes. With Rachel in isolation, I did both—and felt new appreciation, even something like awe, for the single parents among us.
All three of us were stressed, out of sorts, scared. We worried that Rachel’s mild symptoms would get worse. We worried that Luke and I would start getting sick—the only time we left the house was for drive-through Covid testing at a public park. Our worst fears never came to pass, but we all needed to find a little comfort.
For me, that came in the form of a subtle shift I noticed in myself: More than I ever have, I abandoned myself to the small universe of takeout and home-delivery apps on my phone.
I’m not saying I’ve been a conscientious objector in the past. Like many Americans, I sometimes order things from Amazon. I occasionally summon dinner using Postmates or Seamless. But an unpleasant hangover always comes with it—this little nip of guilt, this knowing I gave in. At The Counter, we’ve often reported on the dark side of convenience, or the wealth of great coverage on that topic published by other outlets (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).
I cherished the reprieve from cooking. It bordered on miraculous, this ability to have meals brought to our home, still warm. Other human beings had worked so I could rest.
The overarching concern: What’s the good of a service that makes life easier, if it’s making someone else’s life more difficult?
For the rest of our quarantine, I didn’t let myself think about that. For the first time in my life, I ordered home-delivered groceries, from Amazon/Whole Foods. I almost hated how easy it was. They arrived in silvery freezer bags—the produce still crisp, the sorbet still frozen. Luke and I filled an entire day building a rocket ship out of cardboard boxes, lining our craft with Amazon freezer bags. They gave the contraptions a space-age sheen, my little act of penance.
When my parents sent us gift certificates to Seamless and Postmates, I didn’t hesitate to use them. The meals were overpriced, jacked up with hidden fees, and we drained the balances quickly. Still, I cherished the reprieve from cooking. It bordered on miraculous, this ability to have meals brought to our home, still warm. Other human beings had worked so I could rest. Each time I opened the packages, steam misting from the clamshells, I almost wanted to say grace.
I have long suspected—in a faint, unspoken way—that convenience is itself the problem. That expedience always comes with moral compromises, so we are wrong to want it. But my two weeks in isolation reminded me how punitive that attitude can be. Life is hard. No one should be blamed for wanting to make it easier. The impulse, on its own, is blameless.
As we embrace powerful new tools, we have failed to make sure they work for all of us. The convenience only goes one way.
And yet. Too often, the shortcuts we seek out are predicated on other people’s suffering. That’s where the problem lies: As we embrace powerful new tools, we have failed to make sure they work for all of us. The convenience only goes one way.
That may feel minor in the moment, but it’s linked to a larger abdication of duty. The only way I can enjoy food delivered by companies like Amazon and Grubhub is through cognitive dissonance: As long as those companies treat their workers poorly, it’s a decision to prioritize my immediate desires over the abstract needs of others. That same cognitive dissonance, on a larger scale, is what allows political leaders to downplay the pandemic—even as the crisis disproportionally sickens people of color and the elderly, swells the corridors of hospitals, and leaves people sleeping in the doorways of shuttered businesses near my home.
My time in isolation helped me overcome my moralistic aversion to delivery apps. But it left me wrestling with a larger question, one that strikes me as the central question of this pandemic: How much unseen suffering are we willing to overlook?
We made it through, somehow. Rachel eventually came back into the house, healthy and no longer contagious. The three of us just held each other for a while. That feeling is impossible to paraphrase: You forget how good it feels just to be together, living and up close.
That night we shared a meal to celebrate. Takeout dinner from our favorite ramen place. I went to pick it up myself.