Day 44

It’s Tuesday, right? Two days ago, Sunday felt like Monday because I was working, and because I worked the next day as well it felt like Tuesday, even though it was Monday. So this week I’ve had two Mondays, and I’m now on my second Tuesday. That’s four days already, so shouldn’t tomorrow be Friday?

I’ve decided to continue working at the grocery store, but only two days starting next week. I realized over the weekend that I actually enjoy the work — I’m alone with my thoughts a good deal, and don’t mind customer questions (it’s actually kinda fun to show people where to find the yeast) — and buying food for my family on a regular basis is a convenience that shouldn’t be easily surrendered. It also gets me out of the house while performing an important service during this unusual time.

Flour returned to our shelves the past week, although canned soup remains scarce. I always chuckle when customers place toilet paper and sanitizing wipes on their orders, but I guess you gotta live in hope. There’s rumors of a coming meat shortage, and I’m seeing a surge in requests for beef, chicken, and pork, although none as yet for seafood. On Sunday, I saw a large number of appealing burgers available while shopping at 10 AM; by the time I shopped for my family at the end of my shift at 3, the only burgers available were plant-based imitation meat (“it’s not bad, it just doesn’t taste like anything,” according to my son).

***

Need to correct a statement I made in last week’s post. Our state’s stay at home order is not being lifted this coming Friday; citizens are being urged to stay at home unless they have a compelling reason to go out. But many health care professions, such as dentistry, will be allowed to reopen on May 1. Manufacturing can resume the following Monday, and retail and service industries on May 12. Employees of all businesses will be required to wear masks and maintain six feet of separation between other employees.

It will be interesting to see how these guidelines will affect the store where I work. The aisles were designed in a pre-COVID world, and it’s impossible to pass anyone stopping to browse without coming within six feet. One-way directional signs have been posted on all aisles, but as with wearing of face masks compliance is voluntary and routinely ignored. In issuing the re-opening guidelines yesterday, our governor stated that businesses need to enforce mask wearing and six-feet separation not only to employees but to customers as well. Will our store deny entry to people who don’t have their mouth and nose covered? Will I be required to turn customers around when they go down the wrong way? If my store doesn’t take these actions, what will the state due — fine us? force us to close? Two months ago, such thoughts were confined to the realm of dystopian fiction. Now it’s just Tuesday, or whatever it is we’re calling today.

***

I had to back my car out of the garage into the driveway today, and in the 30 seconds the radio was on I heard the opening verses of “Right Here, Right Now,” a 1991 song by a one-hit wonder with the ludicrously pretentious name of Jesus Jones. Written during the collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s, the lyrics are downright giddy (“there is no other place I’d rather be”) and directly reference the neoconservative fantasy that the world was about to “wake up from history.”

I thought the song was pretentious when it first came out, it seemed even more ridiculous after 9/11, and on hearing it today laughed at its naivete. We rose from history only to step into a waking nightmare.

***

Yet as I’ve said in previous posts, my family and I are doing just fine. The one part of my pre-COVID life that’s noticeably missing is regular exercise. With no gym, fencing club, or Pilates studio available, I can only get on a stationary bike or run around the block; the former gets tedious, and the latter is weather-dependent and, to be honest, unappealing.

I’m curious to see how fencing will change when athletic activities resume. Our coach is considering limiting the club to no more than a half-dozen or so fencers at any time to better maintain six feet of separation. Competitors typically stay more than six feet apart during most of a bout, but you simply cannot complete an attack with a three-foot weapon from six feet away. The metal masks used in competition provide somewhat of a barrier, but the steel mesh is too porous to prevent possible contamination, and wearing a nose and mouth covering underneath is impractical; fencers need air.

One tradition enforced in the sport’s rules will most certainly not survive. Per section t.122 of the current United States Fencing Association Rulebook, at the conclusion of a bout both competitors are required to “perform a fencer’s salute and shake hands with their opponent;” the referee is allowed to disqualify a fencer for an entire tournament for non-compliance. Saluting can be done at a distance and will remain in place, but the shaking of hands will have to go.

***

I don’t know how long I’ll keep writing these weekly updates. Until I no longer feel compelled to publish these thoughts, and with the uncertainty of the world right now I have no idea what conditions need to be met to quiet than compulsion.

Crab Orchard Review

The latest in my weekly reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.

The Department of English at Southern Illinois University has published Crab Orchard Review twice a year since 1995. The journal is currently in hiatus after the death last fall of its managing editor.

What they say about themselves: “We seek diverse voices capturing the range of contemporary American writing and hope in our online version to explore more international concerns as well.”

Issue reviewed: Volume 24, Issue 1 (June 2019)

Genre: Literary realism

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “The Hamblens,” by Laura Steadham Smith. The rise and fall of the Hamblen family in Mobile is told by a daughter who wonders if her family’s legacy should pass to her own daughter. A story about how both strength and weaknesses are passed down through the generations.

Clapperboard Rating: Three Klaks. The story-telling was quite compelling in each of the narratives I read.

Profanometer: Dammit. A few choice words here and there, but nothing gratuitous.

A View from the Past

PHOTO PROMPT © C.E.Ayr

Was that the picture that hung in my graduate school apartment for four years?

I should walk down alleys in this city more often. Tiling my head sideways, I can confirm the view of the Parisian skyline is identical to the picture that hung over my television as I earned my masters. Maybe not the same print; I have no way to confirm or refute that possibility.

If it weren’t in such bad shape, I might take it with me. Those were good years, and it would be a nice reminder of the work that lead to my success.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

Day 37

Working for a grocery store has given me a close look at product shortages over the past several weeks. Customers were limited to two gallons of milk and a dozen eggs in early April, but those restrictions were soon lifted I started. There wasn’t any pasta on the shelves for about a week, but is now available in all its shapes and esoteric ingredient combinations. Orange juice isn’t being rationed, although if you’re like me and prefer a specific variety (reduced sugar, calcium fortified, no pulp) you might have to compromise or do without for a short while. As of yesterday, two major food shortages remained: canned soup and flour.

Non-food items are a different story. A shipment of toilet paper came in last week, and despite limiting purchases to one package per customer our store ran out in two days. Disinfecting wipes came in the same day, also limited to one per customer, and were gone within hours. If you’re not finicky about paper towels and napkins you can find something that will do the job until your preferred brand comes in.

Our store’s pickup service has expanded its hours, but customers still can’t get a reservation any earlier than five days in advance. I’m noticing orders are getting larger; I only shopped three orders yesterday, but each totaled over $300. I was scheduled for a five eight-hour shifts this week, but managed to negotiate an extra day off. My manager knows I’m not planning to stay past a week from this Friday, and she wants to get the most out of my while I’m there.

I don’t know if my working there is making any difference at all, but I’m still happy about the decision I made.

***

It appears our state’s stay-at-home order will not be extended past May 1. We’re not returning to life as we knew it (for one thing, schools will remain online only through the end of this academic year), but the hope is that some of the businesses forced to close in March will be allowed to re-open.

A major societal change, one that may not go away until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine, is the wearing of masks in public. My wife is pretty skillful, especially when she has an excess amount of time on her hands, so she’s created several masks out of old clothing; the one pictured to the right is from a Hawaiian shirt that had gathered dust in the back-corner of my closet. To prevent my glasses from fogging, she sewed a narrow channel at the bridge of the nose though which we thread a thin piece of flexible metal. They’re fairly comfortable, and only become a nuisance when talking to someone at a distance (easy solution — walk closer) or attempting to conduct a phone conversation, where there’s no other solution than to take the darn thing off. Yesterday I had to speak with several customers with a receiver used by numerous people during the day; lowering the mask to my chin seemed a violation of all the social distancing rules I’ve been urged to follow.

Like a lot of people, I’m doing my best to comply, but find it impossible to be perfect.

***

Of course, there’s a number people who feel they don’t have to comply. And by taking a superficial glance at statistics, they have a lazy justification for their decision.

Infections and deaths from COVID-19 are indeed lower than they have been for influenza outbreaks in past years. It’s an absurd comparison — those earlier epidemics weren’t met with social restrictions implemented over the past two months. I also know the reported numbers for COVID-19 are low, due to lack of testing capability (people aren’t being tested until they’re symptomatic, and deaths aren’t attributed to the disease unless the patient had already been diagnosed with it). I’ve also seen the reports from New York and Italy, which didn’t implement social restrictions in time. As a rational person, I can take in all this data and understand that if we hadn’t restricted ourselves like we have, the COVID-19 numbers would be catastrophic.

But hey, if you’re not too bright and trust in conspiracy theories more than you do epidemiologists who’ve studied infectious diseases for decades, it’s easy for you to believe all these precautions are a bunch of nonsense, and you shouldn’t be bothered.

It’s tempting to believe COVID-19 treatments, including the vaccine, should be denied to the yahoos brandishing weapons in front of state capitals. Of course, that belief is as impractical as it is unethical.  We’re going to have to live with their sick ideologies far longer than we’ll have to live with this virus. The best we can do is prevent them from having any position of power.

***

Ten days from now, we’ll enter a new phase in our pandemic response. The battle won’t be over, but maybe we won’t feel as trapped as we have. Many of us will be wearing masks when we leave our homes, but when we’re able to buy more than one package of toilet paper or canister of disinfecting wipes, maybe we’ll feel the worst is behind us. I just hope we don’t start relaxing our guard too soon.

Strange Horizons

I’m reading a lot of great fiction as part of my weekly reviews of literary journals or genre magazines.

Launched in the year 2000, Strange Horizons is weekly online magazine that does not charge a fee to its readers.

What they say about themselves:Strange Horizons is a weekly magazine of and about speculative fiction. We publish fiction, poetry, reviews, essays, interviews, roundtable discussions, and art. Our definition of speculative fiction includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream, and all other flavors of fantastika… Speculative fiction has a vibrant and radical tradition of stories that can make us think, can critique society, and can show us how it could be otherwise, for better or worse. We aim to be part of that tradition, and to update it: in the twenty-first century, speculative fiction must be a global, inclusive literature. We want to showcase work that challenges us and delights us, by new and established writers from diverse backgrounds and with diverse concerns.”

Issue reviewed: 13 April 2020

Genre: Speculative fiction

Garden of the Tea Fish, by Galen Dara ©2020

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: Since the ezine only publishes one story in each of its weekly issues, the nod for this review goes to “The Longest Season in the Garden of the Tea-Fish” by Jo Miles. A race of sentient trees is struck with an accidental disaster which threatens their survival, and Elja, their Animator Superior, must risk her daughter’s life to ensure the survival of her people. Like all stories in the ezine, it is accompanied by great artwork, a sample of which is included here.

Clapperboard Rating: Three KLAKs. The fate of Elja’s people was never really in doubt, but there was a good deal of dramatic tension in her relationship with her daughter.

Profanometer: Gee Willikers. It was a welcome relief to read a story from an author who didn’t feel obliged to throw in a few f-bombs.

Day 29

People have started to push back against the COVID-19 closures and restrictions in the past week. The preparations in our state have made an impact; people are getting sick, some are going to the hospital, many have died, but we’ve avoided the devastation experienced in New York and Italy. This isn’t so bad… what’s the big deal… seasonal flu has killed more people in years past… why exactly are we doing this?

Four weeks ago, health officials predicted an overwhelming number of infections unless drastic preventative actions were taken. But there’s no way to prove that not taking those actions would have led to disaster. Meanwhile, the state’s economy has been short-circuited. Many closed businesses will never reopen, jobs will be lost, people won’t be able to make the money they need for food and housing.

We’ve avoided a potential catastrophe, and have created another.

I understand the frustration, but still believe we’re going about this the right way. An economy can recover, but there’s no reimbursement from death.

***

Started working for a nearby grocery store the past week. I work in the carry-out service: customers place orders online, I download individual orders to a handheld scanner which I then use to shop, then other workers cart out their orders at a pre-arranged time. It’s not hard work — I’m just shopping, for crying out loud, although finding particular items can be challenging. I’ve been buying groceries at this store for years, and never realized pasta was stored in so many places. And don’t get me started on the logistics of candy procurement.

Prior to last month, customers could usually arrange a pickup time for the following day. This week, we’re booked solid, and when slots opened today for Saturday pickup they were taken in minutes, like concert tickets.

Is what I’m doing really making a difference? Pretty sure my new co-workers would have gotten by just fine this past week without me, but the coming weeks could be difficult. There’s talk of expanding our service, creating more pickup times each day; workers will eventually get sick, and the pandemic may force others into quarantine. They might not really need me now, but should I manage to avoid being affected by this virus, I might become very busy soon.

I completed five orders today, which means at least five people avoided close contact with a large group of people, thereby reducing the chance of spreading the virus. So yes, what I’m doing is worthwhile.

***

I’m writing more than usual, which is a good thing. I’m not exercising as much as I had been (my gym and fencing club being closed has a lot to do with that), which is not good. We have a recumbent bike in our living room and I can ride while watching a show, but the pedaling gets monotonous; riding more than once a week doesn’t interest me. While I hate running outside, I’ve forced myself to jog around the block once a week. I made a target for fencing practice two weeks ago, and have used it exactly once.

Nothing in our lives has prepared any of us for an experience like this, so we’re all making it up as we go along. I therefore shouldn’t be disappointed at not having figured out how to best respond. But I wouldn’t be me if I was happy with just getting by.

Pleiades

At the beginning of this year, I set a goal of reviewing one literary journal or genre magazine a week. With just an hour and half left in this week, I’d better finish this one immediately.

Founded in 1981, Pleiades is published twice a year by the University of Central Missouri.

What they say about themselves: In this section I typically include a block quote from the publisher’s web site. However, when I attempted to access Pleiades’ URL this evening, I received an ominous error message. I hope this was nothing more than an unfortunate and temporary consquence of the upheaval in the world.

Issue reviewed: Volume 40, Issue 1 (Winter 2020)

Genre: Mostly literary realism, with some speculative fiction and humor

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “The Year of Nostalgia,” by Alexander Weinstein. In the near future, two daughters attempt to console their widowed father by enrolling him in Nostalgia, a program that generates AI-powered holograms of people based on their recorded data. The hologram created of their mother is surprisingly vivacious, and everyone is pleased to find this woman had a secret life nobody knew about. All is well until one of the daughters discovers a disturbing truth about the data used to create her mother’s hologram. An interesting tale showing how we project our own desires onto the people we love.

Clapperboard Rating: Two KLAKs. Even in the speculative fiction, the emphasis is on interiority rather than action.

Profanometer: Dammit. Averaged a little less than one f-word per story, which is unusually low these days.

On the Other Side

PHOTO PROMPT © Jeff Arnold

I’m breaking the rules of the contest this week to write what’s in my heart.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a furious storm. Everyone affected by this tragedy has my sympathy.

But the storm will pass, and a rainbow will beam into the sky when it’s over.

I don’t know what life will be like on the other side of the rainbow. Given humanity’s history, I’m not confident we’ll decide to change our ways so that the next pandemic won’t be so devastating.

But the only future I care about this moment is seeing that prism of refracted light.

I usually write a 100-word story for Friday Fictioneers, and I’m sure other writers have come up with an imaginative take on this week’s prompt.

Day 22

To nobody’s surprise, our state’s stay-at-home order has been extended to May 1. On Friday, the national Centers for Disease Control issued an advisory to wear a mouth and nose covering (not a medical mask) when outside the home and social distancing guidelines can be difficult to follow.

We’ve been asked to prepare for some bad news the coming week. We crossed the ten thousand death threshold over the weekend, and since this virus is spreading geometrically, the count a week from today could be unprecedented. And when we do get to next week, our state still wouldn’t have reached its peak number of cases; I believe that delaying the surge is good, but the anticipation is nerve-wracking.

I’ve stopped paying attention to anything said by The Fraud. This emergency has brought out every one of his bad qualities. The best he could do now is step aside and let medical professionals and state governors take over, but his ego would never allow that. It’s going to get worse, indeed.

***

I felt like doing something to help, so I’m starting a new job tomorrow.

I’ve written previously about my appreciation for grocery stores, and how their continued operation has been crucial. As expected, demand for curbside pickup has skyrocketed the past few weeks, so much that if you want to schedule a pickup now, you need to pick a time at least three days in the future. Looking to expand this service, grocery stores are hiring.

So last week, I filled out an application. Couldn’t help laughing when I got a call the next day asking for my qualifications (well my doctorate will sure come in handy). Filled out the paperwork online over the weekend, and went to new hire orientation this morning. At eight tomorrow morning, I’m going to be doing… I really don’t know what. But if I can make a difference in people’s lives as we deal with this crisis, it’ll be worthwhile.

On a side note, this new job will be my first position in a union. Not happy about losing a good portion of my first paycheck for due payment, but curious to see in what others being a union man will be different.

Among the documentation I received during orientation was a letter I was advised to keep in my car. Should the state prohibit non-essential travel — there haven’t been any whispers of such a declaration, but a lot has happened the last two months I never thought would occur in this land — I am to show this letter to the police should I get pulled over. “Critical Industry Employee Authorization to Travel Regardless of the Time of Day;” that I have such a document in my possession is a terrible marvel.

***

This is America, and we’re wearing masks outside the home.

This is America, and our largest city is storing corpses in coolers.

This is America, and I’ve been issued a letter of protection should a travel lockdown be declared.

This is America, and a lot of experiences we take for granted — going to a movie or sporting event, having friends over for dinner, seeing our doctor in person — are gone.

This is America, and we don’t know when we’ll start feeling normal again.

A Little Extra Work

I usually have my riding mower serviced each spring, but non-essential work just has to wait for the current crisis to abide. Fortunately I already have the equipment needed for an oil change and other routine maintenance, so that means a little extra work for me this weekend.