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.

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.