Unnaturally Quiet

PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

My town’s public library has closed to visitors again due to the latest COVID surge. Patrons can request materials online and have them delivered to their cars when they drive up, much like the grocery store where I work.

Before the pandemic I’d go to the library on opening one or two weekday mornings. The building would be nearly vacant until children arrived with their parents around 10. I’d then hear young excited voices from the children’s section before leaving around noon.

It’s easy to imagine most of the library being quiet, but a placid children’s section seems unnatural.

This is one of the few times where I’ve written non-fiction for Friday Fictioneers.

Day 663

My wife and I have been fortunate enough to spend the last three weeks on Maui, with four more days to go. Getting here is always arduous given the length of the flight, but the COVID-19 pandemic made this excursion a bit more challenging than it had been in the past.

***

Our airline didn’t require proof of vaccination or testing, but did mandate mask wearing throughout the flight. And with airports requiring masks for all visitors regardless of vaccination status, my wife and I had our faces covered almost nonstop for 14 hours. Not the most enjoyable experience, but there are worse fates during a global health crisis.

***

We were able to bypass the arrival restrictions, which are far more burdensome than those during transport.

The state of Hawaii requires visitors to quarantine for 10 days after arriving unless they provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result. I got my second Moderna shot back in April, and my wife has also been recently vaccinated after completing her obligation to the clinical study she’d been in. The week before our flight we uploaded our vaccination data to Hawaii’s online portal.

Before our connecting flight in Chicago, we checked in with a gate agent who reviewed our data and issued us temporary wristbands. I’m not sure what those wristbands did for us — we were waving our forearms at our destination to anyone who looked like an airline employee, none of whom seemed to take notice. We breezed through the airport without any further questioning or screening, and upon entering the car my wife’s parents used to pick us up, we finally took off and discarded our masks.

***

Our sons and nephew arrived a week later and weren’t issued wristbands despite having loaded their vaccination data to Hawaii’s Safe Travels site. They were asked some screening questions on arrival, then allowed to come in.

Briefly before his trip, one of our sons was exposed to two people who later tested positive for COVID. He followed the CDC’s guidelines on arrival and later tested negative. More evidence that being vaccinated and boosted pays off.

***

Mask wearing is mandatory regardless of vaccination status within indoor public spaces anywhere in Hawaii. Many businesses also require proof of vaccination before they’ll let you in the door; all who have so far have accepted a picture of a vaccination card displayed on a phone. In my estimation, these COVID precautions have been more than reasonable.

***

Many condos in the building where my family stays are owned by retirees. One couple we often see during our visits is a boorish pair who take a perverse enjoyment in broadcasting their political views to anyone within hearing distance. Doesn’t matter if people agree, disagree, or don’t give a fig about their beliefs, because for some odd reason they feel that being a pain in the ass is somehow beneficial to society.

We haven’t seen them on this trip, and the other day we heard they haven’t come out because they refuse to get vaccinated.

Good riddance.

I’ve lost patience with those who make health decisions based on politics. I don’t wish them harm, but I do enjoy knowing they’re being inconvenienced. Coming to Hawaii is a gift, a blessing, and if prefer the medical advice of a cable news program over that of the overwhelming majority of doctors and infectious disease experts, then you deserve to stay home.

***

But I don’t want to end on a sour note.

Four more days in paradise, then it’s back to our mainland home. The flight back will be difficult, but the memory of our time here will get us through. We are very fortunate to have returned after a long absence, and hope we won’t have to wait another two years before coming back. 

Back

Twenty-five days between blog entries is a considerably gap. Don’t have anything brilliant to say, but that’s never stopped me from writing before.

Just another Tuesday at dusk

After the COVID pandemic interrupted our annual sojourn, I’ve returned with my family to the land of routinely incredible sunsets and less frequent but still awesome moonrises. My wife and I arrived almost three weeks ago, and we don’t leave until a week from today. Yeah, we’re pretty fortunate.

Locals I’ve spoken with have commented that the wide-open spaces of the last two years were only briefly pleasant. Tourists have returned, in spite of the inconvenient but absolutely essential travel restrictions (and I’ll have a lot more to say about that in the next day or so).

Phone cameras can’t quite capture how magnificent the moon appears

We’re typically very active on our trips out here, but we’re taking it easy this year. No whale watches, no diving or snorkeling. Didn’t even take my first beach walk until yesterday. It’s a time to sit back and enjoy the warm weather and cooling ocean breeze, being thankful that we’re back at this amazing land after a too-long absence.

And that’s all I got for today. 

 

Day 603

It’s been two months since my last entry in this ongoing journal about life during the COVID-19 pandemic. There hasn’t been much new to write about, which is a good thing indeed. Yet even with vaccinations on the rise and the hazardous numbers going down after the Delta surge, this coronavirus remains our unwelcome visitor.

***

The sinus infection I contracted in early September lingered for nearly a month, long enough for me to take another COVID test, which again came back negative. Both tests were of the polymerase chain reaction (PRC) variety, which is more reliable than the rapid test.

My sore throat and sinus congestion started a day after a length visit to a wastewater treatment plant. I never had a fever or any of the telltale COVID-19 symptoms such as loss of appetite. I tested negative a few days after my sickness began, and several weeks later when I felt like I couldn’t shake this thing.

Could both test results been incorrect and I did have COVID all this time? Perhaps. But there’s far more evidence supporting the theory that I picked up some nasty bug while at the wastewater treatment plant and it just took a while to get over it.

And as my sinuses finally cleared, the congestion spread into my lungs, leading to a month of asthma. These things happen to me every few years so I’m not terribly concerned. But I’m even more determined now to avoid COVID as long as possible.

***

Last weekend my wife went to lunch with a half-dozen friends, one of whom tested positive for COVID the next day. As a precaution, she wore a mask at home when I or my son was around and slept in a separate bedroom than me. She took two rapid tests on the fourth and fifth day after her exposure and took a PCR test; all results were negative.

My wife and I should be eligible for booster vaccination shots in the coming month. Our flight to Maui for a month-long vacation will be in mid-December, so we’re hoping to get our boosters two weeks before departure.

COVID is still very much part of our lives, but living has become much more comfortable than it was a year ago.

Day 551

On Tuesday, I returned to one of my old workplaces for the first time since March 5 of last year.

Since 2019 I’ve worked as a tutor in the Writing Center for a local community college. The job pays well, and I enjoy interacting with students and other tutors. Some day I’ll write about “Son of Sam the Poetry Man,” but that’s for another time.

The COVID-19 lockdowns began when the college was on spring break. The college extended the break an additional week, then moved entirely to remote instruction at the end of March. With the campus effectively closed, the Writing Center resumed as a remote service through email, phone, or online conferencing.

While continuing our work has been a relief, tutors agree that the experience isn’t the same. We’ve learned to read the messages students convey in their bodies and faces while we work with them, and this unspoken communication is often very helpful. We also consult with each other when working with a student, and when there’s no students around we enjoy each other’s company. Of course, none of that happens when working remote. We’ve also found that we spend more time on student essays when there’s no one sitting across a table from us. Our work days are longer, and not as much fun.

The campus has reopened this fall semester. Masks are required of everyone, but in-person classes and services have resumed. The Writing Center has also reopened, and this week I walked into that office for the first time in 558 days.

And I was the only one there.

The Writing Center us a glass-walled office located inside the college’s tutoring center. In the days before the pandemic, I would usually see a dozen to 20 people sitting around tables in the tutoring center, with between three and six people in the Writing Center.

On Tuesday, there were three people in tutoring — all staff, no students. There were no other tutors in the Writing Center, and not one student stopped in during my four hours there.

Since the semester’s just started, the lack of “foot traffic,” as we call it, isn’t surprising. The pace should pick up in the coming weeks. I hope so, because the “I Am Legend” feel of the other day was kinda creepy.

I’m a little apprehensive about spending more time in close contact with other people, but working in the Writing Center will be no riskier than my grocery store job. And the increased risk is far outweighed by the benefit of knowing there’s one more thing I’ve taken back from this damn pandemic.

Day 543

I took a COVID-19 test on Sunday, and was notified today that it came back negative. I’m free of the coronavirus — for now, anyway.

***

For my tech writing job, I took a tour of a wastewater treatment plant last Thursday. Most of the tour was outside, and both my guide and I had been vaccinated.

About 24 hours later, my throat began feeling sore. My sinuses began congesting a few hours later. When I woke up the following morning, I had a headache in addition to the earlier symptoms.

No fever, no muscle or joint aches, no swelling. None of the notorious COVID symptoms — the toasted English muffin covered in blueberry jam smelled wonderful and tasted even better. Eighteen months ago, I would’ve resigned myself to battling a nasty cold for the next few days.

But… didn’t I meet other plant workers during that tour? didn’t I talk to some of them? didn’t some of those conversations take place indoors? I hadn’t asked whether other workers at the plant had been vaccinated. And I hadn’t always remembered to put my mask back on when we entered a building after being outside.

All minor faults. But too many for this anxious time.

***

Many pharmacies and other sites in our area offer COVID testing. Not paying for the test takes a little creativity, though.

I didn’t find any walk-in testing sites, of the here I am come stick a swab up my nose variety. The tests I found required online registration, along with a series of questions to determine if I was eligible for free testing. Ordered by your employer or doctor to be tested? Been in contact with someone with a confirmed COVID infection? Severe symptoms (fever, diarrhea, loss of smell or taste)? Upcoming plane trip to destination requiring a negative test? I chose the three symptoms I exhibited, all under the “Minor Symptoms” category, and after clicking Next found out that I could schedule a COVID test — for a fee of $125.

So I hit the Back button, selected every check box under “Minor Symptoms,” and clicked Next again. Free test!

After the scheduling screen showed no available appointments for the next four days, I registered on another site, selecting all symptoms that wouldn’t generate additional questions — so who is that person with the confirmed infection? The scheduling tab showed one appointment available Sunday afternoon. Haven’t clicked an icon that quickly.

***

As instructed, I entered the pharmacies drive-up window ten minutes before the appointment time. After giving my name and date of birth (without being asked for identification or insurance card), the pharmacist behind the large window printed my paperwork and inserted it into a baggie with the testing supplies. She then pushed the baggie out to me, and walked me through the test:

  • Rip open the disinfecting wipe and clean my hands
  • Open the swab
  • Insert into one nostril, swirl around, hold for fifteen seconds
  • Repeat for the other nostril
  • Open the sample tube without spilling the contents
  • Insert the swab and break it at the perforation
  • Close the sample tube and put it in the baggie
  • Close the baggie and place it in the deposit box at the end of the drive-thru
  • Have a nice day

***

Taking the test on a Sunday afternoon before a national holiday delayed the testing results — instead of one to two days, it was three. But just as my irritation began approaching an unhealthy level, I got the email confirming my hypothesis.

Inhaling the fumes at the wastewater plant likely overloaded my sinuses. Mowing the lawn after coming home that afternoon probably didn’t help.

Could I be more diligent with masking? Certainly. Should I be bothered at exaggerating my symptoms to qualify for a free test? Please.

***

At some point in the future, I’m going to get COVID or one of its cousins. This virus and its mutations is too contagious, this country’s commitment to public health is too effed-up to contain it, and I’m not perfect.

But I don’t have it today, and that’s going to have to be good enough for now.

Day 537

I’ve made some changes in response to the Delta variant, yet I’ve resisted other changes so far.

Knowing there are members of my fencing club who haven’t been vaccinated (I don’t know who exactly, but the club owner has confirmed there are unvaccinated members), I don’t feel safe there. It’s my favorite exercise activity, and I enjoy the people there; being apart from the club is difficult. But the ventilation isn’t great, and there’s a lot of heavy breathing; it’s time to stay away.

Yet I do continue going once a week to the gym in my local community center. I go on weekday mornings between 10 and noon, between the early-morning and lunch break crowds. There’s maybe a dozen people in the workout area, which is on the second floor of the center with high ceilings and balconies overlooking the first floor — ventilation is great. I wish I wasn’t the only one wearing a mask, but I feel reasonably safe at the times I go there.

I’ve told my monthly writing group that I won’t be attending meetings in person until the public health environment improves. We meet in a library conference room for two hours — everyone’s vaccinated, but being so close for so long when an infectious variant is circulating, and infecting some of the vaccinated, doesn’t seem right. I’ll use email to make comments on submissions, so this activity isn’t going away completely. I’m actually avoiding the library except to check out books I’ve reserved. All public libraries are requiring masks for everyone (which makes me wonder why they continue making conference rooms available); it’s a sound policy, but I’d rather stay home and write rather than wear a mask.

Then there’s my job at the grocery store. All employees are required to wear masks, and I’ve been happy to see that most are actually wearing them correctly now, i.e., covering both nose and mouth. Mask wearing for customers is “strongly encouraged;” we have a worker at the entrance who offers a mask to anyone entering who isn’t wearing one. No action is taken against refusers; just wave ’em in. I don’t see the point of this exercise, but knowing I spend very little time around any one customer makes this threat seem small.

Day 514

Been taking an extended break from blogging while on vacation the last few weeks. There’s few things I enjoy more than writing, but it’s something I only appreciate when I put effort into it. And I didn’t want to exert any effort while my wife and I took a break from our daily routines and obligations.

***

The COVID pandemic entered a new yet familiar phase since my last post in this journal. The Delta variant, more contagious and virulent than the coronavirus’ previous iterations, has eradicated much of the progress made since the beginning of the year.

New infections, hospitalizations, ICU patients, deaths — all the bad numbers are trending up again. Mask wearing while indoors is being recommended for everyone, even the vaccinated. Many stores, including the grocery chain I work for, are now requiring masks for their employers; some are even requiring it for customers.

In addition to digging out my supply of masks, I’ve made a difficult yet necessary concession. My fencing club doesn’t have great ventilation and with all the exertion and requisite heavy breathing, I’m choosing to once again put off my favorite recreational activity. My world isn’t ending, but it’s going to be a lot less fun.

Haven’t decided whether to curtail my gym attendance (much more spacious facility with excellent ventilation) or library visits (not many people around during weekday mornings, and no heavy breathing). Being vaccinated doesn’t make me impervious, yet does provide a high level of protection.

The decisions I’m making now are similar to those around Day 1. Going outside my home puts me at greater risk of infection, but isolating myself in my comfortable home would exert awful emotional toll I don’t think I’d bear well. Better to take reasonable precautious and face the risk rather than let it cripple me with despair.

***

My wife and I have bough plane tickets for a December return to Hawaii. Twenty days ago, I felt confident we’d make the trip. Now I wonder if we’re heading for another disastrous holiday season, which would jeopardize our plans.

Day 494

Took a step away from the blog the past several weeks to attend an online literary conference as well as other concerns. Now I’m back — and so too is COVID-19.

Despite an enormous vaccination campaign this spring, a significant portion of this nation’s populace has yet to receive a single shot. And in an incredibly petty and short-sighted attempt to make a political statement, many are refusing to be innoculated.

“The government can’t tell me what to do!” Well the government makes you wear a seatbelt when you drive a car, and I don’t see you walking.

The second wave has started, energized by the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Over 90 percent of the new infections are among those who haven’t been vaccinated, a fact which would make me happy were I petty and short-sighted. There’s no longer any appetite for mask-wearing or bans on social gatherings, so this new strain is going to have opportunities for spreading its predecessor never had. Hospitals are already starting to run low on ICU and ventilator capacity.

There hasn’t been much discussion about booster shots yet. I’m hoping those will be available in the fall in order to get us through what’s likely to be another rough winter. I also hope the nitwits who ignore science don’t force restrictions on air travel, as my wife and I have booked a return to what had been our annual winter sojourn to our land of warm sand. I’ve written before that I don’t believe in vaccination passports, but if that’s what it takes for my wife and I to get on that plane, let the no-nothings suffer the consequence of their decisions.

A lot can happen these next five months before our vacation begins. Unfortunately, most of what will likely happen won’t be very pleasant.

Day 470

I write occasionally about the job I began at a grocery store when the pandemic lockdowns began. I don’t write much about my other part-time gigs.

The community college where I work as a writing tutor has begun restoring on-campus activities, and it’s generally expected that a full slate of in-person classes will be offered in the fall. The Writing Center is open for the summer semester, still as an email or Zoom service. Like many of my peer tutors, I’m spending more time with each student with emailed comments than I did during my in-person consultations. If the Writing Center reopens as a walk-in service I’ll likely drive up to campus for my shift. Not spending any time shootin’ the breeze with my colleagues has me longing for that interaction again.

I worked from home as a technical writer before COVID, so that work experience has not changed appreciably. Our office did have in-person staff meetings before the lockdowns, so those went to Zoom — at a couple hours once a quarter, the loss hasn’t been significant. Site visits to observe client operations were definitely challenging in the days when masking and social distancing were practically compulsory. My clients weren’t as cautious as me; I never felt unsafe, but did feel a lot less anxious when I returned to my car at the end of the visits.

One of COVID’s legacies will be telecommuting. A lot more people are going to be working from home than in 2019. The technology has succeeded remarkably, and workers have demonstrated the required discipline. In-person meetings still have value, but the days of showing up five days a week for an eight-hour shift are gone — one or two days in the office will become the new standard. Reducing commuter traffic by 60% will greatly reduce worker stress and may even have a measureable environmental benefit. As the COVID restrictions continue to be lifted, the world we come back to isn’t going to be the same as the one we remembered.