A2 COVID-19: Stephen Postema

Apr 20, 2020 | A2 COVID-19

Stephen and his wife live near me, on the west side of town. I know both of them via their careers: Stephen is currently a colleague at City Hall and his wife taught my children as the media specialist at their elementary school. In our conversation, Stephen explained a lot about how the City of Ann Arbor has risen to the challenge of this pandemic, how the work of his department continues, and how he and his family have adjusted to these very different circumstances.

This is part of a series of interviews with Ann Arbor residents, talking about personal experiences adjusting to (and adapting during) the COVID-19 crisis. This was my first interview conducted remotely, via the ZOOM application. I appear in this video as “Mrs. Nelson” – we talked over the ZOOM account that I use primarily with my preschool class. Interviewed April 19, 2020.

So I’m talking to my work colleague, Stephen. I usually use just first names but I’m going to name him: Stephen Postema. He’s a fairly known person, our city attorney in Ann Arbor. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, Stephen.

Hi! Yeah, it’s great to see you and I’m happy to help out here.

So I have been asking everyone approximately the same question which is how have you changed your lifestyle, what kinds of adjustments have you had to make since we are dealing with this pandemic?

Let me move a little closer…I’ve changed it in a couple different ways. I’ll start just with the work. As you know, the work of the city has not slowed down at all. In fact, it’s sped up in some ways. So just going back in time, I thought it might be helpful to let people know that really from day one – actually right after the governor declared a state of emergency for the state – the emergency operations of the city went into effect the next day. There’s a large group of people who meet in that – it’s about a dozen (or a little more than that) that includes the SAA’s, the interim City administrator, the assistant city administrator, the police chief, the fire chief – that went in the next day and met daily for several weeks until it cut back to every other day, but so that aspect went into place immediately. 

In my office, likewise, I have an emergency team of four – Kevin McDonald (who you know), Ari Slay who works with the police, and Margie Radabaugh who works on employment – and the four of us met, also, daily to correspond legal work to whatever was required. So the City went into emergency mode as you know with the local state of emergency that March 16th and we’ve been running ever since. In fact, my first real break took place on Saturday the 14th of April (about a month later) so it accelerated a lot of things. 

Practically speaking, my whole office is working from home and so we have zoom meetings like this. We also have a zoom happy hour every Thursday just to get a read on how people are doing and to share some things each week. In that happy hour, we’ve created a Corona virus playlist of songs and — not to make light of it but — to have some things… we’re currently trying to determine at the happy hour what the best dance songs of all time are so that is generating some debate generally, generationally, and otherwise. So we try to mix in some socializing still at work but everybody’s working from home.

So you may be the first person I’ve talked to who is an essential worker. Somebody else I talked to has thrownhimself into a volunteer kind of project that he’s working on day in and day out but you’re the first person, I think, I’ve talked to who has had your work— your workplace— change from office to home. So have there been any unexpected bumps in the road related to that or… what can you say about how you and your office have adjusted to that?

I think it’s worked pretty well. I have to give credit to the city IT department. As you know, they’ve really worked tirelessly to do a couple things to make sure that government could continue. For example, they set up actually the first council meeting that took place on April 6th. We had that, plus a closed session. Some cities that started right away with some of the zoom (and others) had problems that our city didn’t face with some of it. So those things really worked out and I have to give credit to the IT department on that. They set it up not only for our office but for all departments. I mean, it’s really quite amazing to watch. 

Again, I mentioned the emergency management or operations command. And to see each department coming, giving reports how their people are doing, what they need, what’s on the horizon and that took place every day. It was very intense. And it was actually a pleasure to watch other people really ramp up their departments for the good of the city, under this time of stress.

So the other question that I’m asking people is how have you adjusted with your day-to-day activities, things that we kind of have to go out in public to do (like go grocery shopping) and get the things we need. Different people have described different practices and rituals that they are doing to make themselves feel a little bit safer. What kind of strategies have you put into place in your day-to-day?

Well, it’s interesting that you use the term rituals because I think that people… I think we’re all sort of superstitious in some ways or we are facing the unknown and so we do things that seem reasonable to us. I face sort of an unusual situation. Unlike some of the people that you’ve talked to, I don’t have any children at home, my children are grown. I have three in California so I can worry about those three from afar. I have one daughter in town. So in our house it’s just myself and my wife — who works for the Ann Arbor public schools and so they’re obviously off, she’s working from home, also. 

But we did have an interesting thing that sort of changed my routine is that during this whole time (at the beginning of March) my wife went to take care of her sister who was dying at that time and passed away later in March (NOTE: unrelated to COVID-19). She went to be with her to take care of her and so she was gone for several weeks. I went and picked her up (my wife), my daughter and I went to pick her up but because she had been around other people in a setting, we decided to have her quarantined for 14 days. So she came home after this experience with her sister (who did pass away) and immediately went upstairs and spent 14 days in the upper part of our house. 

I had the downstairs and she had the upstairs and we were super cautious about it. So you get into these routines without fully knowing what you need to do but I brought her breakfast, lunch and dinner and snacks (as she will say). So I got into sort of hyper planning mode and that was sort of a way to cope, in addition to the work. But you just extend the day so you work early, you fit in meals. You know, I would bring her meals at the top of the stairs and then, you know, I would disinfect everything and had this whole routine about plates and did it just to be safe. So that that took some stress but it was also a routine that actually gave some comfort.

Like anything else you become sort of (or I become sort of) obsessed with little things and little details and wanted to produce really good meals and I tried to do that every day (some days it was sort of leftovers)… I got interested in making sure that I was plating properly because I used to watch —we used to watch— Top Chef together. So I would give her large platters with little bowls.

The funny thing is when you’re — I had the whole kitchen— doing all the cooking yourself, man, you can use a lot of dishes! So I had to complain to myself about all the dishes that I was using so I was complaining about myself to myself. I took care of it with some remedial work but I did want to take care of her in part because she had suffered a loss. So that was incorporated into the routine. I did do some shopping but I started early with gloves and masks and going in at certain times and wiping things down. 

I think for the first week or two, I washed my hands so much and wore gloves that they become all crinkly (your hands) and so, you know, it just got sort of a weird feeling. But even with the quarantine, you know, we had pizza night one night… we watched “Best in Show” (which is a sort of funny movie that we like from the past), had our phones on and talked to each other on the phone and watched a movie together. So you develop little adaptations to your routines. 

But I am glad that the quarantine is over because it’s just a lot and suddenly things pile up. You know, it’s just somehow easier with two people in the house rather than just taking care of it… the people who are taking care of their kids and have family, I know that that’s really quite a… how they work it all in, it’s certainly something that I talk to my staff about, who are home working. Some of those with kids, we arrange to talk at 10 o’clock at night each night about the work and so I’ve been able to work around different people’s schedules. 

While i don’t have kids, I do have parents in town. They’re at an assisted living or independent living place and so I check in on them and I bring things in to them. One funny thing is you don’t know, you hear so many different things about bringing something to somebody, whether it should wipe down and be in the garage for three days or eight days or whatever. 

I ended up bringing my parents some paper products and some other things but I asked them, I said, “what else do you really need?” My mom’s such a stoic in these times (she’s going to be 89) and she said “Well, I really would like a sip of sherry” and I said well, you know I’ll do more than that, Mom, I’ll bring you a whole bottle of sherry. My dad had said, likewise, he said “yeah, you know I really would like a gin and tonic right now.”

So I brought them a box of stuff and then I wiped it all down and arranged to meet them at where they live. He left his car trunk open about 25 feet away and I opened my back and then put this back of my car, put this box in his car. I carefully instructed that he had to wait three days to get to this sherry and the gin and tonic. So he appreciated that but he stayed 25 feet away and then finally three days later he called and they enjoyed a little cocktail (on Easter). I think they were appreciative but from the outside it might have looked like I was bringing contraband into this home!

It seems sort of funny but you just get…you don’t know. Is it three days? What do you wipe down? What is the distance? So you do things that just seem reasonable to you and try to make the best of it. I think taking care of people’s families, that’s been important but I also have, like you, watched what’s going on in the City and the state and the concerns about the bigger issues, the concerns for other people. I think a lot of people have stepped up. You know, they’ve given to their local charities their social service agencies. I think there’s been a lot of good things that are happening.

In the hard times I do like those stories and look for those stories. I like what you’re doing, just sort of finding out what people are doing and how people are coping. I’m keeping a little pandemic journal every day, just sort of random stuff that strikes me as interesting or thought-provoking. Just little things, you know. 

You find out a bit of information. For example, that people who have the virus lose their sense of taste and smell and so suddenly you just become… I heard it one night (I don’t know, in March?) and the next morning you sort of incorporate that into your mindset. I had Cheerios and blueberries and I just thought, man, these really taste good and boy, can I taste these! You incorporate all of this random information that you’re getting, to just enable you to plan your day and figure out who you’re going to contact and who you’re going to be with. Everybody’s doing it and everybody does it in different ways, I think. 

So some of the people that I have talked to have described what I think… I think a good word would be sort of profound loneliness and just a very very abrupt change to how they used to be living day-to-day. Then I also hear people, concerned that they know of people who are resisting the changes that we’ve had to implement in our lifestyles. We just saw this week, the protest in Lansing of people who are saying you know enough is enough we’re tired of this.

Do you have any thoughts of what to say to people… either people who are struggling and finding this particularlychallenging— like their world has gotten so small (it feels like) —or people who are just resistant to accepting the kind of changes that I feel like Ann Arbor is doing a pretty good job of self imposing: these guidelines, andchanging the way we used to be living. What would you have to say to that?

You know, I think that I’m struggling like everybody else. I mean, in the end the legislators are going to have to figure this out.

I would say that on the loneliness issue there’s a couple things. I’m a reader and so I think that, for me, reading is one way to deal with that, but also reaching out to a lot of people. On Sundays, for example, I meet with all my siblings and my parents over ZOOM (6:30 on Sunday). So, like a lot of people, we’ve started incorporating those sort of things. Our kids, we have an eight o’clock call on Sunday night. 

We’ve reached out to people from the past and we have little groups periodically that, frankly, met irregularly and now we have more… I have a lot of doctor friends from college and so keeping up on them and meeting in a ZOOM context. Reaching out to people, I do think is really important. 

I have some… I talk about reading but I have enjoyed one thing, this Bill Bryson At Home which, for a lot of people, it’s a history of each room in the house. It’s one thing that —it’s just sort of random— since people are spending a lot more time in their house, I think that it was just an interesting read. 

As to the impatience, everybody has a different tolerance level because it may be social impatience, it may be a sheer economic necessity. So that’s the thing that I think is going to play out next week (I would assume) with the governor, and you’re seeing the tension in the legislature. But this is going to be with us for some time and so doing the right thing is certainly important.

I had an interesting thing that I’m going to pull up that my wife sent me when she was in quarantine. She sent me various words of inspiration at times or other poetry. This did strike me… she posted this the other day and it did strike me as good words from the Irish poet John O’Donohue. It’s a poem called “This is the Time to be Slow” 

This is the time to be slow,

Lie low to the wall

Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let

The wire brush of doubt

Scrape from your heart

All sense of yourself

That just seemed interesting to me, that it captured both a profound sense of pending loss for people but also isolation and encouraging people to —it’s not the whole poem but — just to steal themselves and to do things that are necessary to help themselves.

But like you said, everybody does things differently, remaining in contact, reaching out to people within your family but also watching out for neighbors and the broader community. Whether it’s simply going back to the charities that people have always supported in times of need or helping businesses that they know are struggling, there’s a lot of that going on in very small and big ways. I think that that concern level has helped people, I think, get over the isolation. I do see a lot of that: people doing things to help themselves in isolation but also to help other people. 

I had a conversation with one of our colleagues at City hall. She talked about how (working from home), at a certain point, she was grateful for excuses when she sort of had to go to City hall, which was infrequent, but it was like a change of scenery. I guess I’m curious… are you making any special effort to give yourself a change ofscenery and sort of try to overcome the monotony of just being in your house all the time?

Yeah, I do. Incorporating into the routine, I do walk twice a day and so even when my wife was in quarantine, she’d come down and we’d have a quarantined walk through the neighborhoods, spent a lot of time in the fifth ward (as you know, I live in the fifth ward) and so, really walked all over the place, so doing that.

I do go into the office. Again, like anything else, we have routines in the office, so that if you go into the office somebody needs to let me know. I want only one person in the office at the time, we wipe everything down, and so it’s very set up. For the most part when I do go in, I’m still the only person who’s there in my office. If other people go in at times, they let me know. But I do like to go into my office because I have all my stuff! As the younger people in my office will tell you: I like my binders, I like real binders. Electronic folders are great but I like my things. I’ll occasionally go in, just to pick something up or sort through some stuff there, so that’s been nice. 

Like I said, it’s been sort of a whirlwind on some of the stuff. I have taken some time. I like what you’re doing in talking to people. As you know, I’ve been writing a little bit about growing up in Ann Arbor and I do recognize that people are feeling, at a certain point —even last week— have sort of hit the wall on the isolation. I really think there was a marked recognition of that. 

I posted a little piece on social distancing that… it was sort of a simple piece about something in the past but, man, it really hit a nerve and all sorts of people wrote me about it. It was really about connecting with strangers, in random times and events where you just talk to strangers. That was something that actually I missed. I like to talk to people at the stores and other things: the banks and things. I still do it but it’s through a mask and through plexiglass. People aren’t there to chit chat with you, they’re there to get you in and out. Yeah, I think everybody sees the isolation as different but I do get out and walk around or, if needs be, go to the office.

There are funny things about going to the office because they, again, were figuring out how (when the City hall opens up), how does that go? We had a process: we had to take your temperature before you went in. They were trying to get these thermometers that could sort of scan your forehead from afar at the front desk. Well, they were trying this out and I went in the front way, they took my temperature— it was 81 degrees on my forehead! I said, I think you need to get a little more accurate… this scanning thermometer, this raises some questions to me! I wrote my staff, I said I just took a temperature… and of course it elicited all sorts of funny responses about being a cool character or whatever. It caused some laughter!

But anyways, I know that there are things that people are going to have to figure out: how do we social distance? how do we test? You know all of this is new territory and so we’ll see, but at a minimum if we’re testing we need to get accurate thermometers…! 

I would agree. So you actually… I could have said something at the beginning of this: you are the first person I’ve interviewed remotely this way, even though I could easily bike to your house (probably in five minutes!). So I’m curious: when you do go outside, what kind of precautions are you taking when you’re just out and about, just walking around your neighborhood?

I was an early mask wearer. I probably started wearing masks, probably, I would say on March— let me look at my timeline— on March 16th. 


After that day when the local state of emergency was called. After that day, I started wearing masks. I happened to have some, they’re more [for] painting, I had a bunch in the shed. I had some and I had gloves. I had gloves, so I wore gloves and masks going out and we do social distance, really are careful walking. We’ll go down to the arb and there’s a little more space. But we will stop and talk to people from you know 15 or 20 feet you know if they’re on a porch. The good thing in my neighborhood, we’re sort of a front porch neighborhood, where a lot of people tend to be out. You can see people walking around and so that’s been good just to see some neighbors and just find out who’s around and who’s doing what. 

I’ve just been a big mask wearer and my wife’s a good seamstress so since she’s been home now she’s starting to make masks. I had somebody in my office (Michelle Yanga) and when she got done with work — her family was in the medical profession — she really started cranking out some very good masks, too, that we have. So, until the science tells us what to do, it’s just a precaution that I’m willing to deal with. That’s been sort of my routine on walking. 

Well, I can’t think of any more questions that I want to ask except to ask you if there’s anything else that you’d want to add?

No, I think these are difficult times and that’s why I read a little bit from that poem (again: John O’Donohue) and I just think that people will…Another book that I have here, I had just started reading before —I like American history— and it’s a book by Drew Faust called This Republic of Suffering and it’s about death of the American Civil War. It really talked about just sort of the American psyche when times were very difficult. (It’s a Bancroft prize winner.) I also recommend the book because there are some lessons about the whole nation dealing with the sense of loss and with just trying to readjust their psyche on what we’re going to do, both economically [and] socially: how do you raise a family? How do you teach young people? how does government operate? These are all things that we’re all thinking about. 

Working in government, we’ll have to advise on some legal parameters, but those are the hard questions that it’s the body of government (the council, the state legislature, and the federal government), those three tiers always have to deal with. We’ve dealt it in many other contexts and it really remains to be seen. It’s not easy. It’s going to be a hard task to figure out how to govern and how things will move forward. But I’m a great optimist, I believe that things will sort out over time. 

I think people in Ann Arbor are fortunate, but I do worry about things other than just our neighborhood or our City. I think it’s important to look broader than that. I think there will be some very big issues about governance and society and how all systems work. I hope we’re up to it, I really do. I believe we are, but it will take more than just brain power. It’s not something that we can just think our way out of, it will take action and I believe it will also take just great compassion and great…looking at how people live. That is the challenge for our time. 

Elizabeth, all I can say is this is probably not what you or other council members necessarily signed up for 18 months ago. The world was very different, very different. So, again, I’m happy to assist the City. I’ve been City attorney for a long time. I’m a townie, I grew up here (as you know) and taking care of the City is meaningful and will take a lot of effort going forward. I thank all my staff and really thank the work of the City from the interim City administrator on down. It really is, has been a pleasure to work with people at the City and watch them in the emergency operations, it’s been very impressive to me.

It’s been to me as well, and I take every opportunity that I can to reassure people just how carefully issues are being thought through at the City level: things beyond our control, where we’re thinking about things that are within our control, absolutely, we’re problem solving around. I do feel like we have a really strong team.

I’m not sure that the whole public knows, for example, we do have an emergency manager who has been part of the staff for a long time: Rick Norman. We have our fire chief, Mike Kennedy, is really well versed (it’s just a pleasure to watch him in action as we go forward), obviously a new police chief who has experience. Listening to the group as each meeting goes by, listening to people with their collective wisdom, it’s very humbling to me to watch. There’s a lot of talent and it helps to have people with good background. It’s been a pleasure to work with them 

Well, I appreciate you talking to me, Stephen. This has been a good conversation and I thank you!



Take care, bye bye