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.

Day 465

To celebrate our family becoming fully vaccinated last month, we looked into having dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. It’s a steakhouse where we ordered carryout from during the pandemic, but found the experience very unsatisfactory; cooked beef apparently doesn’t travel well. We wanted to dine there during a weeknight, but when we called to make reservations, we found the restaurant was only open on the weekend. Apparently they don’t have enough staff now to be open every evening.

It’s a story we’re hearing a lot as we race out of our COVID doldrums — employers don’t have enough workers to meet renewed demand, and nobody’s filling out applications for all the vacant jobs. Initial wages and salaries are increasing; at the grocery store where I’ve worked for over a year, new hires are being offered $11 an hour. That’s what I make now, a fact which would bother me if I was doing this for a living.

But when I do just a little math, I realize working for a living at $11 an hour is impossible.

The poverty level for a single person in my state is at little over $25,000. If I worked at my hourly wage a full 40 hours all 52 weeks of the year (no vacation, unpaid absences etc.), I’d earn a little less than $23,000.

I work at the grocery store one day a week because I enjoy the work. If I needed the income, there’s no way I’d continue working there and earning what are literally poverty wages.

The extension of unemployment benefits is certainly having an effect on the labor market. But I don’t see laziness being the major problem. The wages being offered just aren’t enticing enough. Staying on unemployment rather than working for poverty wages isn’t a sign of apathy, but rather intelligence.

It’s easy to identify a problem, but much harder to fashion a solution. A country-wide minimum wage of $15 an hour doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, as it doesn’t take into account regional differences and lead to skyrocketing price increases. COVID has been a disruptive force, and its impact on labor has created a problem that could take years to solve.

Day 456

Took yet another step further away from the pandemic cavern this weekend. For the first time in 459 days, my writing group met in person.

We had been meeting for years in conference rooms of our county library system, but the cancellation of any non-essential meeting forced us to go virtual. I didn’t know anything about Zoom at the time, but my wife had an account which she had to use immediately for her work. Hers was a Pro account, allowing her to host more logins for longer meeting times, and she didn’t need it during my group’s Saturday morning meetings. With nobody else in the group stepping up, it was either learn how to host a Zoom meeting or let the group disband until the pandemic was over.

Any student who’s taken one of my college composition courses can tell you I can be visibly uncomfortable as the center of attention. Phone calls also don’t sit well with me. Yet hosting a Zoom meeting was an entirely different experience. Maybe it was seeing everyone’s face, yet not feeling anyone’s active gaze on me except when I was speaking, that made it work for me. I could go on mute and not worry about sneezing or coughing; I could step away without anyone noticing, or even turn my camera off a moment. And I still had opportunities to say what was on my mind. I could be personable, but on my own terms. It was liberating.

Around the second or third meeting I came up with an effective hosting strategy. On a screen separate from the meeting I created a list of commenters for each story reviewed in the meeting, and posted that list in the chat. When the first commenter was finished, I invited the next commenter on the list to begin. Commenters appreciated knowing when their turn to speak was coming. If a commenter went on a little too long, I could send them a private message urging them to finish. When all commenters were finished, I created a new list for the next story to be reviewed, posted the list in the chat, and the process resumed.

Our group was very active during the pandemic, with enough submissions to warrant a second meeting most months. I don’t often pat myself on the back in this blog, but I’m pretty sure the ease with which we transitioned to virtual meetings had a lot to do with our success during this difficult time.

I was ambivalent about meeting in person again, for no other reason than to avoid the 45-minute car trip, but I wasn’t going to miss this one. We met outdoors, at a covered pavilion in a private park. All six of us were fully vaccinated; we didn’t wear masks or keep our distance, a clause I’m hoping won’t haunt me in the future. The feeling was far different from our Zoom meetings. Getting online doesn’t take much effort, but meeting in-person requires attention to several small details. I felt more committed to the group than I had in the past year and a half, and I think we made the right decision for this month’s meeting.

We’ll likely continue meeting in person through the summer. By the time the weather turns cooler the county library may have reopened their conference rooms, and we’ll move our meetings inside. Looming over these plans is the threat of another wave of infection. We’re not entirely back to where we’d been before, but reliving our past experience this weekend was refreshing.

Day 451

Nearly 18 months between plane flights. Don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve been away from the skies for that long. Probably high school.

It was completely spontaneous. My younger son was having trouble moving into his new apartment, and since my wife and I didn’t have any firm plans for the weekend we decided to give him a hand. Got up at 3 on Saturday morning and drove to the airport, which was far busier than I expected. “This is like Christmas,” my wife observed. Twenty minutes to get through security — glad we arrived an hour early.

Masks were required at each airport, as well as on the flights; it’s probably a federal law, and given how much close and lengthy interactions occur with air travel I was glad for the restriction. Most people in the airport were masked, although I did see more than a few chin diapers. Mask enforcement was stricter once we got inside the aircraft. I don’t like wearing a mask for four hours straight, but I’ll pay that price in order to balance convenience with safety.

On checking in to our hotel, we were also asked to mask while in public areas of the building, although I didn’t see any violators reminded of this policy during our stay. Outside the hotel, it was like 2019 — none of the shops we visited to buy furniture and good for my son’s new apartment asked for masks, and most employees didn’t wear one.

Since my wife and I are both fully vaccinated we were OK with the sudden relaxation of COVID safety measures. And as we boarded the plane for our return home after getting our son moved, we both felt relieved for indulging in a spontaneous journey once more.

***

We haven’t bought plane tickets yet, but our plan is to return to Hawaii this December. So much can happen these next six months that could foil this plan, and if it does happen I hope we won’t have to be masked for the entire 12-hour flight. All I can do now is hope there’s not another wave of infections, and that an effective booster shot will be available in the fall.

Day 445

Went back to the fencing club tonight. First time I’d picked up a blade since the fall.

Thursday is our “open floor” night — no lesson, no drilling, just throw on your gear and mix it up. Only six people, on the light side for a Thursday. Many of the people I’ve competed with don’t know if they’re coming back. I wish them well, but also hope they change their minds. Their wit is one thing I hope won’t be permanently lost due to the pandemic.

Our coach set a club policy on masking — if one person needs to wear a mask, everyone must. One of the teens tonight hasn’t been vaccinated yet, so I wore a mask designed for working out under my fencing mask. This mask provided better air intake and therefore worked better than the masks I’d attempted to wear when fencing last summer (a decision that now seems foolish). When the unvaccinated teen left, the three of us still at the club took off our masks — the relief was immediate. I can wear this new mask as I make my way back into the sport, but I’m really looking forward to discarding it.

As I completely expect, the effect of spending so much time away from fencing was evident. I attempted a simple lunge soon into my first bout, but with no flexibility in my legs I kinda stumbled forward. I felt like a hippo trying to tap dance, and was thankful that I didn’t fall on my face.

But when I switched from foil after a few bouts and put on my saber gear, I finally felt the exhilaration that came to me so often on Thursday nights before COVID. The action in saber is so swift that you can only rely on instinct and reflexes; there’s no time for planning a strategy and worrying about its success. You just go, focusing all your energy into single bursts of action. Every cell in my body feels alive when I’m fencing saber, and it’s a thrill I’ve missed sorely this past year and hope to never have to abandon again.

Day 436

Since we’re evidently about to throw out our masks and forget about social distancing, can we once and for all stop with the hygiene theater?

For almost a year now, scientists have largely agreed that the risk of contracting COVID from a contaminated contact surface is low. Fomites stopped being our enemy for some time, but the obsession with hand sanitizer, disposable wipes, and spraying countertops and doorknobs continues.

This morning was my third weekly trip to the gym, and I got on a treadmill that was two away from the only other in use at the time. Fifteen minutes into my run, some guy gets on the treadmill next to mine, despite there being several others available. He wasn’t wearing a mask, like I was, but he decides to wipe down every surface of the console before beginning his run.

In other words, he ignored the two proven methods to prevent transmission while opting to perform an action that has little effect. And it’s easy to see why, because his chosen defense, ineffective as it was, is the least inconvenient for him, involving the least bit of forethought or consideration. I think that’s why we continue to disinfect surfaces even though there’s no science to justify the activity. It’s a brief action that makes us feel like we’re doing something useful, gosh darn it.

At the grocery store where I work, cashiers wipe down the customer conveyor belt after each order. When I check out a book from the library, a janitor sprays the self-checkout monitor. I walked into a bank the other day, and a teller wiped down the counter as I left.

When the next flu outbreak happens, as early as this fall, I have no confidence in our ability to fight it. Most of us will ignore the lessons we were taught this past year.

***

Sorry for the pessimistic screed today. I’m angry, and sometimes it’s better to express that anger than let it fester. I’ll try to find something more positive to write about for next week’s entry in this ongoing journal.

Day 431

In 13 days, I won’t have to wear a mask outside my home. Wish that news made me more joyful.

Following the Center for Disease Control’s revised guidance for vaccinated people, our state’s governor announced that COVID health orders will be lifted June 2.

The announcements seem sudden and dramatic. Yesterday we were told to keep on keepin’ on, and tomorrow we’re back to 2019.

Have I become too comfortable with the minor inconveniences of the pandemic? Am I upset at having to drive to writing groups and workshops? Perhaps. But I’m also thinking of a previous period of high optimism, one in which I shared.

I made a giddy projection sometime around June or July last year that the pandemic was nearing its end. New cases, hospitalizations, deaths — all the scary numbers were going down, and I expected the downward trend to continue. That didn’t work out well.

And yes, the vaccines have made a major difference. But there’s so many people who can’t or won’t get their shots. The coronavirus has also mutated, several times.

Perhaps my attitude will change in the next two weeks, but discarding my mask in public doesn’t seem right to me. An overreaction to the progress we’ve made the last few months.

I want to be wrong in my pessimism. But I also want us to get it right this time.

***

My wife and I have reserved condo time on Maui for December and January.

We haven’t bought plane tickets yet, in part because we recognize there’s plenty that can still go wrong between now and then. We usually book travel arrangements around September, and if the virus situation continues to improve by then we’ll likely decide to go, even if we have to wear masks on those long flights back and forth.

I also like to travel, by plane or car, to see my siblings in Maine during August. I’ve never been away from them this long, so I’m perhaps even more anxious for this trip.

Vacations have been one of the more minor casualties of COVID. One of the reasons I hope we’ve actually turned the corner now is to get back that part of my life.

Day 422

My wife hasn’t received a vaccination card, and might not ever get one. And it’s all her fault for trying to be a good citizen.

At the end of last year she volunteered to participate in a clinical study for a COVID vaccine; we can’t disclose the manufacturer’s name. It’s called a double-blind study, in which each participant receives two pairs of shots. One pair is a placebo; the other is the actual vaccine. She received her first shot at the end of January, the second a month later. The second pair of shots began last month, and she’ll soon receive her fourth overall injection. Patients are asked to record their temperature daily and report any health issues. Her only reaction to the three shots she’s already received has been arm soreness.

She may have been inoculated in February. Or maybe she got the placebo and has yet to receive her second dose of the vaccine, meaning she won’t have developed antibodies until June.

The manufacturer may never tell her which pair of shots was the actual dose. And because this particular vaccine hasn’t been approved — it’s the reason for the study after all — she won’t be issued a vaccine card.

She’s heard many people dropped out of the study when they became eligible for an approved vaccine. I attempted to volunteer for the study in January, but didn’t receive any responses to my inquiries. Based on my wife’s experience, I’m glad it didn’t work out, because by now I would have joined the dropouts.

I’ve written before about my opposition to vaccine passports. If they truly inconvenienced the COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers, I’d be all for them. Yet I’m pretty sure the deadbeats will forge vaccination cards or find some other way to cheat the system, while those who’ve played by the rules — and those who’ve made sacrifices, like my wife — will be the ones who are punished.

Day 415

Didn’t blog much last week, and while COVID and my increasingly busy schedule are convenient excuses, the truth is that I didn’t feel inspired. Rather than go through the motions, I decided to take a week off. Now I’m back to continue this odd little journal of pandemic-inspired observations.

***

Went to the gym this morning for the first time since at least November, most likely further back.

Today was about feeling comfortable and getting re-acclimated rather than pushing myself. Got on the treadmill and jogged for 25 minutes, with a maximum speed of 3.0 MPH and no incline, a pace brisk enough to produce a full-body sweat. My knees are always the most sensitive part of my body when running, and I felt enough tension down there to convince me not to dial up the speed or incline. As I write this a few hours later I feel fine, but the chance of overnight stiffness is pretty high. Assuming I’m not terribly laid up tomorrow, going to the gym on Tuesday morning will return to my weekly routine.

I wore a mask designed for exercising the entire time. When properly tightened the edges fully cover the nose and mouth, with the fabric around the mouth molded into a kind of pouch that makes heavy breathing noticeably easier. It never went unnoticed, but it wasn’t uncomfortable either. If I have to wear it to work out, I’m more than willing.

How that mask will hold up when I return to the fencing club, where I get my most rigorous and enjoyable exercise, could be another story. Until I stopped going in the fall when the pandemic reached dangerous levels, wearing a cloth mask under my fencing helmet, with its sturdy metal cage close to my face, was at times unbearable. I had to take frequent breaks when sparring at practice; competing in tournaments was overwhelming. But if I employ the take it easy approach I used today at the gym, I expect to enjoy getting back to stabbing people (and getting stabbed by them) for fun.

I’ll use the busy schedule excuse to explain why I’m not going to the club this week. Next week should work out, and I’m looking forward to seeing my people again. Some of my friends there I haven’t seen since the fall, others in over a year. Walking into the club will be a victory far greater than any I could achieve in a bout.