Deferred Maintenance


About a week into self-quarantine, way back in March, I realized that one of my teeth was loose. I could tell from the odd taste in my mouth that something was brewing that was probably undermining that tooth. I knew that although my dentist’s office was closed, there was some provision for emergency service, so I called. One of the dentists on the team returned my call and listened to my complaint and prescribed an antibiotic in the hope that that would arrest the advance of whatever was undermining the loose tooth. We agreed to talk when the antibiotic regime was done and decide on next steps. At that point, the situation had at least not gotten worse, so presumably emergency services were not necessary, particularly since I wasn’t in pain.

In normal times, I would have made an appointment to have my dentist address my problem first-hand, but these are not normal times, so I’ve made my peace with the status quo. I’ve added the loose tooth to a growing mental list of problems needing attention that I’ve labeled Deferred Maintenance (DM). That’s a term familiar to homeowners and heads of institutions where money may be short and decisions have to be made about which repairs, renovations and reconstructions can be put off without jeopardizing anyone’s safety or allowing further problems to arise that are going to be even more costly and challenging in the future.

Money isn’t the problem that’s requiring me to delay action, although it may be for people avoiding bills that would stress their shrinking income base. For me, it’s safety in the face of the pandemic. Any problem that requires a foray into the wider world outside the cocoon of our apartment is an anxiety-producing threat to that safety. I’m guessing that many others are running a tab similar to mine, longing for the day when restrictions ease up enough to begin crossing items off this list. Here are a few other examples that I’m guessing will remind you of items on your own list.

We try to get out for a walk every day, but that often degrades into every other day, especially since more and more of our outdoor time is devoted to tending our plot in the community garden. One of those excursions took us to the area behind the Museum of Science and Industry which opens onto a lovely lagoon, originally designed for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. No sooner had I declared to my wife what a blessing it was to have such a place to visit than I tripped over a crack in the pavement – probably a bit of the museum’s own deferred maintenance – and took a hard belly flop. The bill for that misstep was some bruised ribs, a bloody chin and a face mask rendered useless by the bleeding. Nothing to be done about the injuries but wait for them to run their course, but the glasses that flew off suffered a cracked frame, though the intact lens dropped into my hand when I retrieved the glasses. The neighborhood opticians are all closed, so on it goes to the DM list. In the meantime, a teenager in our building was “volunteered” to bring back some Superglue from the local Dollar Store, so for now a blob of that mysterious substance is keeping me seeing.

That’s not the only sensory organ on my endangered list. Forgive me if this is TMI, but my hearing aids, Costco’s gift to the hard of hearing world, are constructed so that there’s a detachable rubber piece that fits snugly into the ear. Unfortunately, for no particular reason, that piece separated from the rest of the mechanism and lodged in my ear. My doctor advised a trip to Urgent Care at the U of Chicago Hospital, the last place in the world I wanted to set foot in for obvious reasons. For people who have been zipped up so tightly for the past two months, that excursion into the big bad world was incredibly stressful. That experience added to my admiration of the front-line people who have to face that anxiety daily at what must be an enormous emotional cost.

In any case, a friendly masked doctor extracted the detached piece from my ear, but what now? A call to the Costco hearing clinic confirmed what I had assumed and expected – closed until allowed by the city and state to be otherwise – although the audiologist for whom I left a message called back to say he was putting my name on a waiting list from which they would call people when they reopened. To my enormous relief, I’ve discovered that I can still hear reasonably well when the wire from the hearing aid is inserted naked in my ear. So, as with the Superglue, I’m still hearing and seeing well enough to manage my now limited interactions with the outside world.

There are other external items that were on the DM list until I realized that they could be remedied by online ordering. For many of you that would be an automatic move to your laptop, but for people of a certain age, not so much. Two examples. My watchband broke in early April. I kept it in play with scotch tape, although it continued to fall off at unpredictable times, not a huge problem during our housebound times, but a real disaster, say, in our community garden. It wasn’t until last week that it occurred to me that I could order a new watchband online. Those of you who have replaced a watchband in the absence of the right tools to deal with those ornery spring pins that secure the band to the watch know that it’s not a job for the faint of heart, but once done, I cross one item from our DM list. Ditto for a jumpy computer mouse that performed unwanted tricks of transporting or deleting text unbidden. Normally my tech guru might have stopped by for a problem-solving session. But, belatedly, I realized that I could order a replacement mouse, and, lo and behold, things are back to normal on our computer screen Another DM item to be scratched.There’s more – light bulbs that need replacing whose wattage I can’t determine without actually entering a store – that will just have to stay on the list for now.

Everything I’ve described here is so embarrassingly petty in comparison to the huge issues of societal deferred maintenance that preceded the pandemic – the centuries-long failure to provide all our citizens with adequate incomes, schooling, housing and health care. The consequences of continuing to turn a blind eye are reflected in the data on which of our people are being disproportionately affected by this scourge. There’s no equivalence between my list and our national report card of failure, but it represents the kinds of small, admittedly First World, challenges that many of us have faced in lockdown. Our lists of DM will continue to grow if, as is likely, we’re nowhere near a wider opening up. It’s a small price to be paid for our survival. Our larger national To Do list will still await action.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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