BRUNSWICK — As an anxiety-prone native New Yorker and a Maine resident since 1979, I marvel at Mainers’ unflappability. But with summer visitors from everywhere, even Mainers express anxiety about their heightened COVID-19 risk. During Italy’s lockdown, Padua friends sought refuge in their country house in the Dolomites, where locals demanded they take their COVID germs back to the city. “How heartless,” I thought. Now I’m ashamed to say I understand.

Born in 1950, I lived in the Bronx till 1956. Because polio was rampant in those early pre-vaccine city summers, my first five years were structured around avoiding polio. My polio anxiety is palpable still. And now – COVID Anxiety.

As first-generation children of Jewish immigrants, my parents put safety above all else: Feeling safe could be achieved only by being safe.  You can feel safe and not be safe, which can lead you to act unsafely. And you can be safe and not feel safe, which can make you appear annoyingly neurotic, especially to optimists. Not being an optimist, feeling safe is not my default attitude. But I can feel safe if I discern evidence that I am safe – or as safe as possible given the circumstances.

The polio rules: No drinking from water fountains or from anything but funnel-shaped paper cups set in metal holders at the soda fountain. No sandboxes. Certainly no swimming pools. And no sitting on public toilet seats without making a cover from toilet paper (which rule still holds).

My second or third birthday party – I’m not sure which – is the scene of my most vivid polio-anxiety memory. My relatives “helped” me blow out the candles: “They spit polio germs on my cake!” I ran into my bedroom, refusing to come out until my mother promised she would scrape the icing off my piece of cake: no polio germs for me. I remain wary of icing on birthday cakes.

In 1955 Uncle Sam, our pediatrician, vaccinated us and soon learned about the tainted batches that contained live virus. My parents waited in secret terror for his report – maybe we weren’t safe after all. Luckily we were, and today Dr. Fauci is my grown-up version of Uncle Sam. I miss his regular TV “house calls.”

My husband and I were in New York City the first week in March, for my 70th birthday. My sister and her partner brought hand sanitizer, masks and gloves from Connecticut. We returned to Maine on March 9. For the first time since moving to Maine, I’m glad not to live in New York.

My parents’ vigilance not only helped keep us safe from polio, but also helped me feel safe. Without knowing it, they were teaching us to use what psychologists now call a “defensive-pessimist” coping strategy: Think about what can go wrong in feared situations, take all possible precautions and face the situation fortified with plans for coping if the fears are realized. This controls debilitating anxiety, so anxiety-prone people like me can function better and keep moving forward.

As a card-carrying defensive pessimist, I am not paralyzed by COVID-19 anxiety. Armed with defensive gear, my husband and I go forth into the “fray”: We take walks and chat with masked friends at the farmers market. I even stopped washing the groceries! If we suspect exposure, we will get tested. I am pleased to see defensive pessimism catch on in America, where negativity – even “negativity” that helps many function better and can save lives – has been frowned upon.

This summer I note the influx of cars with plates from COVID-laden states. With “Vacationland” on Maine license plates, expressing unwelcoming sentiments to vacationers (and/or refugees) would be both ironic and heartless. But as a Bronx-bred defensive pessimist who carries extra masks, I’m happy to offer one cheerfully to any non-masked person standing next to me in line.


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