It could always be worse (the modern-day version)

There’s a Yiddish folk tale titled “It could always be worse” (adapted into a book by Margot Zemach), in which a poor man living in a one room hut with his family is having a terrible time. Because of the lack of space, the family is miserable – he’s constantly arguing with his wife, and they’re both exhausted from hearing all of his children cry and fight.  

One day, he goes to his rabbi for advice. Various versions of this tale exist, but in all, the rabbi tells him to do things that ultimately make the situation worse, for example, bring some animals into the hut to live with them –  chickens, roosters, and a goose. The man does this, and of course, then has to deal with even more noise – clucking, crowing and honking – and even more chaos, with feathers in their food, children tripping over the animals, and so on. He goes back to the rabbi to complain, who tells him to bring in his goat. Now, they have a goat breaking furniture and crashing into them. The man returns to the rabbi in tears, who advises him to bring his cow into the house, and you can imagine the result. Finally, he pleads with the rabbi, saying something like, “Save us! The cow is trampling everything and there’s no room to breathe! It’s unbearable!”

The rabbi tells him to go home and take the animals out of the hut. He does, and his family sleeps well for the first night in a long time. When he sees the rabbi the next day, the man shares how peaceful, quiet and roomy the hut is now with just him and his family!

I was thinking about a modern version of this story the other day. Let’s go back to February 2020.

I worked from home quite a bit in my basement office and regularly thought, “It’s so dark and cluttered down here – I wish I had more room – ideally a bigger office space with windows and sunlight, so I could at least know what’s happening outside.”  I often spent mornings working at the kitchen table, where I could see outside, but sitting in that chair for extended hours was really uncomfortable. And then when the kids came home from school, I’d have to move back to the basement anyway.

Imagine I went to my rabbi and said this. He might reply with:

“I think I can help. A month from now, a pandemic will affect the world. School buildings will close, and your boys will start attending school from home. Dan will also work from home. You’ll all be under the same roof.” 

“Pandemic?” I’d question in confusion. “I don’t understand. You mean like when we have a big snowstorm for a few days? That doesn’t sound so bad. We can buy some junk food and wine, watch movies, and hunker down until it goes away.”

“No, not quite like that. But while you’re buying the junk, stock up on toilet paper.”


He’d continue, “Dan will take over a corner of the bedroom, turning it into his office. The bay window will be full of his work stuff. And you’ll no longer be able to run up and grab things you need whenever you want because he’ll be on calls. For example, if you forget your workout clothes, and you want to walk at lunch, you’re walking in whatever you’re wearing.”

 “That sounds a little… um…limiting. So Dan is in the bedroom. Where are the kids?”

“Ryan’s in the dining room at first. He’ll initially have no idea how to handle virtual school. You’ll make schedules and divide up subjects with Dan so you’re constantly coming in and out of the dining room where he’s working to help him. Jordan works in his room.”

“How do I ever work in the kitchen and see sunlight if Ryan is up there?”

“You don’t. You’re underground all day, every day. Except during lunch. Everyone tries to eat lunch at the same time, so you’re all crowded in the kitchen preparing things. Ryan will ask you constant questions about things you can’t answer – the virus, when it will end, when he will go back to school, Trump’s behavior…”

Oh boy…

“And,” he goes on, “Dan has a need to update you on what’s happened since the last time he saw you at the keurig – probably a couple of hours ago. Eventually you’ll learn to eat lunch at 1:00 after the rush, and you often have 15 or so minutes of quiet before someone appears. Of course that’s just on odd school days. Every other day is an even day, which means school ends at 1:00 vs 2:30. On those days, at exactly 1:00, Ryan will be sitting on the couch with his electronics surrounding him (you call it his equipment), asking you questions for as long as you stay in the kitchen. In those cases, you’ll quickly grab a protein bar and go back underground.” 

“Ok, that’s all a bit confining. I’ll just go into the Philly office more.”

“You can’t do that – the office is closed – it’s a pandemic.”

“Ugh ok. I could work out of a coffee shop, I guess. Starbucks has a nice space upstairs.”

“How are you not understanding the word ‘pandemic’? Nothing is open for months.” 

“No Starbucks?? Well… my parents have an extra room. I’ll go there a couple days a week to get some space.”

“You won’t be able to spend time indoors with your parents for a while. It’s not safe.” 

“What? That doesn’t make any sense. How can I not see my parents?”

“You’ll see them – just from a distance outside.” 

“This sounds like a nightmare, Rabbi. Tell me more about this pandemic. How sick do people get? How contagious is it?”

“That’s a very long story for another time –  today we’re just talking through your space problem.”

“Right. You haven’t helped me at all with that. Things seem even more cluttered now.”

“We’ll get there.”

“Ok. So the pandemic ends, when? A month? Two?”

“Well…not quite. But in three months it gets warmer so you can start to do things outside. Get some space from each other for a few hours. Restaurants will open for outdoor dining in June. You’ll have dinner with other couples here and there. It will be a nice change to see people again.”

“Wait – restaurants were closed all of this time??? And we didn’t see friends for months? That’s insane. How did we spend our free time?”

“A lot of Netflix and books. You’ll walk for an hour or more nearly every day – and wear out a pair of sneakers after a few months. And you’ll socialize on Zoom – lots and lots of Zoom for the whole family. Sitting around the table using your iPad, you’ll attend Zoom holidays, Zoom happy hours, Zoom date night, Zoom Friday night services, Zoom Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Zoom college visits, even Zoom shivas.”

“That sounds riveting. I’m missing our social life already. Please tell me the kids are doing things out of the house by the time we get to summer?”

“Nice thought, but no. Everything they are doing is virtual. You are all still together every day.”

“Ok, but you said we’re eating outdoors. The pandemic must be getting better, right? So by September, the kids go back to school? And maybe Dan’s in an office? I’m in an office? Someone is out of the house?” 

“I love your optimism. Offices are still closed, and school kicks off virtually.”

“ARGH again? I think I need a drink.”

“You have plenty – your wine collection will have gotten very robust by this point. You and Dan are members of multiple wine clubs.”

“Well, that’s something.”

“Yes, and here’s something positive about the space situation. When school starts, everyone is working from their bedrooms. Ryan is no longer in the dining room. He’s become more self-sufficient with his work and can do everything himself. You’re not involved in the day-to-day anymore. If you time it right, you can get into the kitchen without running into a family member.”

“Hmm.. that sounds a little better, I guess.”

“Except when Jordan’s wifi stops working – which is at least 2 days a week. Then he’s in the dining room.”

Oh dear… 

“And there’s the matter of Jordan’s music.”

“What do you mean? I love Jordan’s music.”

“I agree. It’s wonderful. And since you won’t be leaving the house any time soon, you’ll hear a lot of it. First, there’s musical theater class. Every other day when he has it, he starts his morning in the main room of the basement because it has the most space. This class usually involves him performing something right outside your office door. He’ll be practicing for that performance throughout the week. The sound will travel around the house, as he knows how to project. He’s also taking chorus, so more singing. And finally, his new passion for song writing means he will be creating songs – vocals and piano – most days.”

“So the house is alive with the sound of music all week. But we get out of the house on weekends to go eat, right?”

“Well… once the weather changes, the pandemic gets worse – cases rise and outdoor dining ends. You’ll decide to stay in again, mostly to avoid getting sick and passing it on to your family.” 

“UGH! This is endless! And I don’t see how any of this is helping with the original lack of space issue.”

“Dan does go into the office a couple of days in mid-Fall when it opens.”

“Dan’s out of the house? I’m feeling a little better – I can get into the bedroom again.”

“Don’t get too excited. Dan soon finds out one of his team members tested positive for the virus, so he goes back to being virtual every day. Luckily, he doesn’t catch it.”

“That’s a good thing.”

“It is. You become even more cautious and only see immediate family – indoors now – because you’re all being careful. It’s a long winter. But, I have some good news.”

“Finally! The pandemic ends?”

“Well no, but there are now vaccines to protect you. You and Dan get vaccinated in the March-April timeframe, so you can spend lots of time with the rest of your family and friends again. And Jordan and Ryan are fully vaccinated by May.”

“Amazing! I’m starting to see the light at the end of this long tunnel.”

“In mid-May, Ryan returns to school and is gone from 7:30-2:45 each day.”

“Wow! I’m excited just thinking about that. It must be quieter in the house now. No more questions until after school.”

“Jordan goes into school every so often, too, for different activities. And then one day, in early June, you’ll come upstairs to make coffee and realize no. one. is. home! You’ll remember Dan went to an in-person work event, and Jordan is gone for the next two hours. You have the house to yourself.”

“No way! I have goosebumps. What’s my reaction?”

“You run from room to room, marveling, with a big smile on your face, at the quiet and all the space you have. To celebrate the quiet, you have food delivered and take an actual hour lunch break to sit in the living room and catch up on Grey’s Anatomy while you eat.” 

“Ah Grey’s – I wonder if Meredith and DeLuca ever get back together? I’m not sold on them as a couple, but…”

“Let’s not go there – I want to end this lesson on a positive note.”

“Fair enough.”

“You know that one day it will be just you again in the house – maybe not as frequently as before, but enough. And you’re ok with that. Life is getting back to normal. Vaccines are keeping people safe. You’re supremely grateful. The clutter and lack of space – they don’t seem to matter as much.”

“No,” I’d say, “I guess they wouldn’t. That was an extremely helpful story to put things in perspective. A little dramatic to get the message across, but it worked. Thank you.

“Story? Who said it was a story? Seriously, go out and stock up on toilet paper right now.”

4 thoughts on “It could always be worse (the modern-day version)

  1. Loved your twist on an old fable and summarizing our COVID experiences with humor! Harvey

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