PNW Coronavirus Chronicle #5: Ten Days in September

It is said that it only takes ten days to two weeks to form a new habit or adapt to changed or different circumstances. I’ve been living a sound-proofed existence as a result of being completely shut-in for the past ten days due to hazardous wildfire smoke. The smoke now finally cleared, I reopened my windows, and it is as if I let the entire outside world come rushing in. I’d grown accustomed to my muted environment without realizing it. So much so, that I am astonished how novel and how loud the sound of bird song, falling rain, rustling leaves and cars driving by all seem. It’s as if I’ve entered a strange, noisy alien world. Hearing a person walk down the hill to the park across the street startled me, giving me a moment’s panic that someone was walking in my home.

I’ve not added a new chapter to my pandemic chronicle in recent months because I’ve been tongue-tied, or whatever the writerly term is. Not blocked. Just too agitated to express anything but frustration and anger. It’s why I don’t consider journaling therapeutic. Instead of a means of processing thoughts and feelings into some sort of positive result, I usually end up more anxious than when I began. So, I don’t write when I’m stressed. Well, that’s not entirely true. I don’t post what I write. There were 40 revisions to this post stewing in the Draft file since the first week in June.

I think what’s recently unbound me are two things: One, summer is my busy time at work but now that I’m in the home stretch with the end in sight and most of the work done, I’m less stressed and able to turn my attention elsewhere. Second, I have finally accepted the circumstances of the pandemic as the way things are and will be for a long while yet. I refuse to use the term “new normal,” because like all catchphrases, it is overused. Plus, I do believe there will be a time that we will return to “normal.” Yes, some things will not be as they once were as a result of this experience, but ultimately? We are social animals locked into generations of conditioning. While it may take just a couple of weeks to form a new habit, it would take eons to reprogram thousands of years of human nature.

PNW Coronavirus Chronicle #4: A Silver Lining Between Two Angry Clouds

Since March 10th, the myriad of emotions and states of mind I’ve experienced exceed anything I’ve been through in a year. Maybe more. At first, I adapted fairly well to the stay at home order. But now, I’m stir crazy. I’m bored. I miss… so much. Variety. I miss variety in my days. While it’s hard to believe it’s been almost two months, I realize, because one day is exactly like the next, that that kind of monotony and solitude have the unreal ability of making time stand still.

I live near Seattle, and I work in the county to the north where the first COVID19 case in the U.S. was confirmed. It was a strange feeling to know I was living in the country’s first hotspot. At the time, everything was business as usual, which made it seem all the more strange, given the stories from China, Italy, South Korea and Spain. Then came our turn to shut down.

A really weird circumstance, but, honestly? It is not that dreadful. At the time, we thought it would only be a couple of weeks, three at most. To have two weeks to play at being the sought-after professional who makes their own rules and works from a home office? How fun! So, sure. Whatever. Let’s hunker down. Lets shop for groceries as if the snow storm of the decade is forecast. Make all our favorite meals and desserts. Step outside and take a deep breath and marvel at the empty streets. Anyone can make the best of things for a couple of weeks, especially if they aren’t actually homebound by 3-foot drifts of snow. Or, confronted with homeschooling. Or cooped up with a partner, spouse and restless children. Or laid off or furloughed. It’s the best of all worlds.

Then the mandates are extended and two weeks turns into a month, and then another month, and now, the end of May. Parks are closed. Events are cancelled. Shopping centers are shuttered. Businesses permanently close and jobs are lost so suddenly, it is as if all businesses were hit by a massive nuclear bomb. Masks go from being declared of no use to mandatory. Tempers rise. The conflict between life versus livelihood takes on a mythical, almost epic gravitas. Healthcare workers break corporate rules and speak out about the horror show they are living. The need is yesterday, but our bureaucracies are not built for crisis management. By the time the relief fund or the medical supplies are finally in someone’s hands, it is too little, and way too late.

Even a walk in your neighborhood is a stresser. Mine in the park across the street has become an irritating cross between a game of wack-a-mo and an obstacle course, as I weave and bob around people and dogs and blissfully unconscious children running this way and that. I dread a trip to the store and have taken up curbside pick up and home delivery.

So, the frightened and defiant stage protests. Leaders devolve into pissing matches. Politicians duke it out with scientists. Normally, this would be considered more of the same infuriating postering, but with what is actually at stake, these days it plays out as a clear and present danger. The stress of it all begins to dull and crack the gloss of your initial child’s play fantasy. It’s no longer a fun snow day.

All this came into play just after one of my family groups was bowled over by their own crisis. A relative, diagnosed in January with an aggressive cancer, was transported in an emergency air lift to an ICU unit the next state over just as all of this hit. For various non-covid, but legitimate reasons, their spouse could not leave home to be with them. Then all family is forced to stay away because of travel shutdown and fear of bringing the virus with them and infecting the others. The pressure and panic of it all proved too much. A very real, truly frightening meltdown took place. The whole thing a horrible and gut wrenching drama to have to witness, helplessly, from afar.

I appreciate the stories of people helping people during this universal crisis, pitching in where they can. But, to me, after all the emotions I’ve cycled through these past weeks, seeing people standing in doorways each night to applaud first responders, or leaving messages of encouragement with teddy bears in windows, or putting Christmas lights back up, or flying banners that read “We Got This!” seem naive and trite.

So, I take a deep breath and turn inward. I have to “fake it until I make it” in order to accept the audacity of hope that all will be fine, some day. I have to make myself smile: At that banner with words of encouragement, waving in the warm breeze. At the sign in the window made by a cheerful child’s hand in colorful crayon. At the odd sight in May of a lighted snowman and Santa Claus in the front lawn.

As I write this, I sit on my couch, gazing out the window, grateful that Mother Nature has awakened from her winter’s nap. A bright yellow daffodil, brilliant purple tulip and a sunny afternoon go a long way to lift a spirit.

I take another deep breath.

The phone rings with the call that my family member succumbed to their cancer, peacefully passing Sunday morning. There cannot be any gathering to honor their life, acknowledge their passing, nor bring comfort to the grieving.

(sigh).

PNW Coronavirus Chronicle #3: Home, Sweet Home…needs a decorator!

Another unforeseen critical situation in all of this is the mass hysteria interior decorators must be going through. Have you seen the TV reporters broadcasting from their living rooms, kitchens and basements? I hope we aren’t actually getting a glimpse into their private lives, because, if so, many of these people are in dire need of some taste. However glad I am to see that IKEA has done as well as they have, I am at the same time mortified at the extreme state of unoriginality and lack of imagination. There might be a scourge worse than a virus for which there is not yet a vaccination: Color and Design Blindness, or CDB. I wrote my congress representative to insist a course in art appreciation be added to the Cares Act.


When I started this post, I was on a directive to work from home “as much as possible.” Shortly thereafter, while I was out running “essential” errands (read: picking up my prescriptions), I got a text that a co-worker and his wife tested positive. New directive: Quarantine for 2 weeks (btw…neither required hospitalization, and both are on their way back to health, recovering at home).

The news waxes on about people battling isolation, cabin fever, and chaos, as people try to figure out how to work from home while learning the hard way how to also be a homeschool educator. But there are people like me, now that I’m passed cabin fever, who are loving the new world order. You won’t see us on TV, though. We’re not about to solicit any sympathies. We are, firstly, healthy, still employed and not on the front lines in the hospitals, M.A.S.H. units or care centers. Next, we are single, no children, no one else who needs us to look after them, and under orders from our employer, our city and our state to shelter in place. Coronavirus is awful. Truly. I do not mean to be glib. But, my life at the moment? Not that bad.

The epitome of a lonely walk on a sunny day for me:

PNW Coronavirus Chronicle #2: Hey, look! I have a can of clam chowder!

It’s pantry rummaging time. Not because I’m too scared to go out in public. I’m rummaging around my pantry because there is something that happens when a person is stricken with the onset of cabin fever. The hunting and foraging instinct kicked in yesterday at lunch along with a profound urge to nest within the safe confines of my home.


A moment of curious calm

I stood staring out a window, chatting with my manager on the phone as we tried to map out how this, however temporary, situation will have to work, when I spotted two small birds in a tree. What struck me was that the afternoon was pretty stormy with the wind pitching and swaying branches, but there they perched, unperturbed. They were every bit the picture of a comfortable couple gazing at the view from their back deck. All that was missing were a couple of tiny Adirondacks and itty-bitty glasses of wine.

I found the sight of those two birds very calming. These two sat on that branch, unmoving, staring off into the distance, for almost 10 minutes. The aggressive movement of the branches in the storm didn’t bother either of them. Not a single flutter. It is a scene that recalls a favorite quote:

Peace.
It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. 
It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.

The clam chowder I found in the back of my cupboard was fine for today’s lunch, but truthfully, I needed more provisions. So I ventured out for groceries. Just using the term, “ventured out,” in relationship to a routine trip to the grocery store is odd. I’ve been out and about every day this week, but only for short trips that did not involve being in the proximity of more than a couple of people at a time. A trip to the grocery seemed daunting.

I headed out with a full ration of patience, along with homemade hand sanitizer and latex gloves. Not surprisingly, I had to circle the parking lot several times before landing a spot. The cluster-f**k that ensued when 5 cars vied for 2 open spots would usually result in a lot of parking-lot road rage. Not so today. As a community, we are well aware we are in crisis-mode, so it seemed that I was not alone in bringing patience with me to the store. Every driver assessed their part in the do-si-do and maneuvered accordingly and expediently. It was the most neighborly thing I have ever witnessed.

The store was busy, but “normal” busy. The only difference were the empty shelves. It’s funny what people think is necessary to hord: Flour, eggs, butter, but not so much baking soda, yeast or salt. Frozen meals, of course, but only certain frozen meals. There’d been a run on plastic food storage bags, which seemed odd. And, I just have to say, all that broccoli is going to go bad in just a few days, so folks better eat up.

But Collard Greens? I had my pick! Mushrooms, too. Asparagus. Artichoke. Lettuce. Carrots. Radish. All that was left of the white onions were a few paper skins, but yellow and red onion and shallot were plenty to be had. Berries were picked over (pun intended), but plenty of apples and oranges. Fish, beef, nuts, tomatoes, juice, cheese, baked desserts too. What fascinated me was coffee. There was a lot of coffee. You’d think there’d be a run on coffee.

As I considered buying the half turkey breast from the rotisserie service (as all their chicken was sold out, like, all chicken. They were completely out of fresh chicken too), I heard a shopper curse under his breath that salami slices were sold out. The neighborly demonstration in the parking lot inspired me to pay it forward. I suggested he get a 1/4 lb. at the deli counter. Poor guy had to take a moment to process. He’d never considered the deli counter before. He smiled and thanked me. As I moved along to the check out, I heard him ask, “How much is a pound?” A pound?! Wow. He’s taking the lock down very seriously.

PNW Coronavirus Chronicle #1: Letters from a shut-in

Yesterday at noon, the WA State Governor announced that all groups over 250 in our tri-county area are forbidden from gathering. He then hinted that schools will soon been closed (they did today, in the same tri-county area). A later email from a local school district further hinted an inevitable closure won’t be for weeks, but for months.

For me, it all started last Friday, when the mayor of the small town where I work announced that several city-owned buildings would close. As our office is in one of those buildings (and we are a city agency), we received a subsequent notice to work from home, “as much as possible.” Well, as much as everyone wanted to shout, “hell, yes!”, we abstained. When things get serious, it seems untoward to appear you are taking advantage. So most of us showed up the next day. Then the day after that we were sent home with the admonishment to only come into work if absolutely necessary. Before leaving the office we were also given an agreement to sign. Basically, a scouts’ honor to work all 8 hours a day.

The “work from home” edict is one thing, but an example of how urgent folks are getting about the recommendations to curtail spread of this virus is this: I was talking to one of my co-workers when we were interrupted by a senior manager to be conscious of the fact that we were standing “way” too close. We looked at each other and then assessed our distance. Probably 4 feet. Another co-worker brought out a measuring tape, sort of as a joke, and measured the distance. It was five feet 1 inch. We both took a step back. Six feet is a really weird distance to have to stand when one is having a comfortable conversation with another.

The one thing I’ve learned about working from home thus far is this: There is a lot that is accomplished in the consortium of co-workers that cannot possibly be accomplished when everyone is sent to sit in their respective corners with their backs to the room (so to speak). And then there is the plain weirdness of working from home. Home is where I hang out. Where I kick back. It is where—except for paying bills, routine chores and other homeowner headaches—I only do the things I enjoy doing. There’s no flopping on the couch for an hour’s nap after lunch, just because I can; as I do on weekends. Were my cat still around, I’d being having a heck of a time keeping her off the desk, or circling me, constantly meowing. And, I’ve discovered to my great frustration, my home desk and office chair are not designed for a full day’s toil at the laptop. OUCH! My back!!

I’ve also discovered my neighbor above me has a treadmill. She has always worked from home, but all this time we’ve been neighbors, I never knew she had a treadmill. On her breaks she jumps on that thing. And, that damn thing is loud! It’s like living under an earthquake. Funny, the things you discover when your circumstances change. I told her to go on with her treadmill. It’ll give me an excuse to go out on a walk to escape the noise!

Which brings me to this: Walking around your neighborhood is the healthiest/safest thing you can do these days. You don’t encounter a single nasty germ-infested surface; the world around you (unless it’s raining) is lovely; and it is not socially awkward to keep socially distant from others you pass by. However, it makes meeting the ebullient puppy-dog tricky.