Pandemic Life: Just Before Halloween

I have a really bad case of wanderlust. Dates are being published for opening more and more things up for travel. Things ARE getting better. My airlines are sending me sunny newsletters about all the places I should go with them. And yet…we’re still losing more than A THOUSAND PEOPLE A DAY in the U.S.

From: https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#trends_dailydeaths captured just now. Yikes.

It feels so… strange to be having such optimistic conversations, though the downward curve is quite welcome.

The graph just has scary numbers on the y-axis.

My pen friends in Europe are telling me that everything is great, but there’s a slight delay in their letters, so they aren’t looking at the data that I’m seeing. Which says that cases are up globally after a decline we were hoping would stick, and that cases are up 18% in Europe alone.

Wanderlust or no, I’m… not leaving the country anytime soon. 🙁

Pandemic Life: Early October

Someone in my yard was excited that I was watering the camellias, and had to check me out.

This week, I had an early morning medical appointment, so I caught a commute train downtown. I was worried that it would be crowded.

It was not crowded. Which is a worry of its own.

I was happy to see the commuters who were present wearing what are now known as “soft” clothes (with a new meaning about clothes that are not simply made of soft fabric, but which are also largely unstructured and are made without hard fasteners; this distinguishes them from items that are now called, “hard pants,” for example), but was surprised that there still weren’t a lot of people. That was nice for being able to get a seat on the bus, but still eerie.

It’s still SO DIFFERENT. It still feels so unnaturally quiet here in my City.

One of the interesting elements of great cities is how lively they are: how there are always people out and about, day and night, because so much work (and play) of various sorts are happening. Even though SF has become a relatively sleepy city during my lifetime (which sounds like some veiled complaint about how it is hard to find somewhere good to eat in the middle of the night (ahem), but is more a commentary on how the music venue options have become so limited, as luxury housing displaced industrial and commercial corridors where theaters and concert halls can operate freely), it was very lively by day in the Before Times. It isn’t now. Not on weekdays.

The ripple effects on businesses downtown have been significant: all sorts of businesses, from dry cleaners to lunch-only restaurants to pharmacies to coffee shops have vanished, because the multitudes that had made their business a nearly sure-thing in the past aren’t around. If even national chain retailers have closed up shops, the impact on smaller, one-location businesses and small local chains remains remarkable.

I received goodbye messages from some local food vendors early on, and while restaurants normally fail at a high rate, some of them were big local employers with multiple locations, so it was still a shock. Also, going downtown now, their locations remain vacant. Not all of their signs, fixtures, and furnishings have been removed, likely because their collapse was swift, and there aren’t yet buyers for their gear or lessees for the space. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of how hard major disasters impact everything.

Because it has been distributed, we aren’t really accounting for losing 700k+ people in discussions of how things are changing. When low-wage employers complain that no one wants to take what are now relatively high-risk jobs, they don’t seem to be factoring in the fact that we are not just short workers, we are short living human beings. Also, many of those who were infected are still not feeling great, which influences what they do for work.

Oh, this data is from the always excellent Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus page.

The weekends have more signs of life, as people who are working invisibly from home go out to parks, the waterfront, and shopping districts enjoy the fine autumn weather.

~~*~~

The U.S.’ international travel bans that I wrote of earlier will be lifted for vaccinated travelers in November, and some countries are opening up to Americans again.

While unvaccinated people are still permitted to fly, I am unlikely to board a plane.

It feels like it will still be a long while before I’ll move through the world with the comfort and relative safety I felt during the Before Times.

Pandemic Life: Country-level Travel Restrictions

Having taken so many precautions for the pandemic for so long, part of my brain has been eager to visit another country ever since my second vaccine dose kicked in, but before Delta made its special talents known. While in real life I have no plans to travel outside of California this year, my brain is still wandering.

Out of curiosity to see what the options (which I will not be availing myself of soon) are, I visited the CDC’s website.

So you’ll see what I’m looking at, I’ll paste in the map here:

A clear and useful illustration, but “not a pretty picture” in the metaphorical sense

Sure, we are a country with abundant vaccines, but we still manage to be in the worst possible tier, because: some Americans have… issues.

Even though we are in the worst tier, we remain fussy about who can visit us. So, contrary to the hopes a friend in Sweden recently expressed, or the plans of a new Irish pen friend to visit his sister here, or the absurdly optimistic entreaties of British Airways in their advertising communications to me about booking trips to Europe, here is our current list of banned nations:

The ENTIRE SCHENGEN ZONE is on the list!! This hits me because I used to have a job that required frequent travel between a team here (in California) and one spread between the UK and the Schengen area, and… that job would not be possible in pandemic times. I was lucky to have had such a unique job, and appreciate it all the more now that it is such an artifact of the Before Times.

I am all the more grateful in retrospect for the travel opportunities I had in the past.

Pandemic Life: Autumn approaching (through fog)

The western half of San Francisco has had a very foggy summer, which isn’t unusual, but we are confused by the consistency. Our local weather is characterized by its general mildness, sure, but also by its variability. A week may have both hot and cold days; an afternoon may have both warm and cool hours. All of the seasons may be represented during the course of any month.

Dressing for the same weather more than four days in a row feels a bit off.

Many things still feel a bit off, honestly.

The inter-COVID recovery is continuing, but is not evenly distributed. Some streets feel nearly normal, where there is a proper “street life” of locals out and about, while others feel quite abandoned, as if auditioning to be the set of a disaster film. The background rumble of the City hasn’t been fully restored, though there are days when I see traffic backed up on the Bay Bridge or on some street, and those sights are somewhat comforting. A reminder of the before-times! (While polluting traffic isn’t something to celebrate, signs of human activity, even involving vehicles, feel like a return of some kind of vibrancy, however indirect.). My streetcar filled up with schoolchildren one morning, and while it was unexpected (I haven’t been on a FULL streetcar in months), it felt like a good development.

My two friends in other regions who suffered breakthrough infections have fully recovered. My friend in month 9 of long-COVID recovery is making good progress.

My city of 800k+ people is experiencing more than 100 new test-confirmed cases daily (sfdph.org), which isn’t great, but isn’t as bad as it could be. Masking on busy streets, even while outdoors, is coming back into fashion. (I now have a wider range of mask thicknesses to get me through different activities!) My state health department says that more than 48 million of us are vaccinated, and the state’s positivity rate is dropping again (around 3.5% right now for the state; it’s just 2.3% in my City/County). For comparison, the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows still-alarming national numbers (over 8% positivity).

I would like to go to a COVID memorial site, or have one available locally to visit and light a candle or sit to contemplate the vast loss of life. I’m glad to read of this (albeit temporary) memorial art installation by District of Columbia artist by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, which is visually strong and thoughtful:

*

Two of my friends this week asked me when I think it will be possible to travel safely again, despite knowing I am no expert in epidemiology. (At least I’m not a musician with a cousin with a friend in Trinidad who is misrepresenting his condition?) (If you don’t know what that reference is about, you are lucky.) Maybe I’m an expert in traveling? Anyway, I can see myself traveling recreationally outside of my state again by this time in 2022 if conditions are right. In the meantime, I’m expecting more variants of concern that will need to be studied; data from the results of the mix-and-match clinical studies currently underway (to determine if we should get a different vaccine than we started with, to see if that improves our antibody levels in a useful way); and likely a booster shot based on information from all the studies going on.

I also expect that my travel considerations will be different going forward. I have a friend in New Orleans, but I won’t visit him soon, not only because of Hurricane Ida’s lingering damage, but because of infection rates and hospital availability. Any medical emergency could become fatal if hospitals are overflowing, and the lack of medical support colors my view of any destination! It would also feel wrong to visit a place where locals can’t get the vaccine. So a new list of criteria begins to form:

-low infection rates
-high local/national vaccination rates
-traveler vaccination requirements and testing to fly (so flying is safer)
-traveler testing upon/near arrival (so tourist activities are safer)
-emergency service / hospital availability
-open to U.S. travelers
-cultural attractions are open, operating, and accessible to visitors
(note that capacity restrictions to prevent crowding during a pandemic are good and can make attractions more enjoyable; they need to be managed well, so I can know that I can get into museums and similar institutions during my visit with an easy online/mobile/kiosk reservation).
-tourism is supported by local communities & their leaders (I respect local government pleas NOT TO VISIT when they are struggling) and there is a safety culture, especially for public-facing workers.

I’m sure I’ll adjust this list as circumstances change, but this all feels reasonable to me at this time. Vaccination has made me feel safer, but having friends with breakthrough infections reminds me that my perception of safety is limited, and precautions are still required.

Pandemic Life: Humans are Strange

The biggest news today is that the Food and Drug Administration officially FULLY approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for adult use against COVID, which is a big deal. It doesn’t change our access to it here in the U.S., it just shows people who claimed their reluctance was based on the vaccine’s lack of full approval that their concerns have been alleviated. If that was their actual concern.

Meanwhile, the same FDA had to say this.

Somehow, American adults who don’t trust the vaccine specifically to protect humans against COVID do trust a livestock deworming medication which is neither for humans nor for COVID.

I do not understand this.

Old person story: Kids used to try to persuade their parents to let them do something because all of their friends were doing it, and parents used to reply by asking if they would jump off a bridge if their friends did it, which was supposed to make a point about blind conformity… but… now I suspect some of those kids could counter with, “Like the time you took horse de-worming medication to treat an unrelated illness because of something you read on Facebook? “ Which would make their parents go quiet.

The World Health Organization has been compiling the wacky things people think, to correct their strange confusion. Their myth-busting page is here:

My favorite, because it is about tasty food, is:

FACT: Peppers are tasty!

Books: Writing Fiction during an Implausible Time

I write legal and technical materials professionally, AND I recreationally write a range of other things. Blogs like this, web pages, a surprising number of letters and postcards, diaries, notes for stories, and fiction. Writing is something I have always enjoyed, and I am always writing something, at least for my own satisfaction.

As with so many other fiction writers, the current pandemic has been a wake up call that the popular fictional narratives we have around plagues are not accurate. Yes, in nearly every popular movie, there is a warning from scientists that goes unheeded, and there is needless suffering. Yes, there are rumors and superstitions and panics, and we see those in films and playing out similarly in real life.

Yet, the level of denial visible in real life in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic is shocking. People are devoting significant time to announcing that the pandemic is: a hoax, a domestic conspiracy (despite its global nature), a foreign plot (it is somehow not real but also a foreign bioweapon), a domestic power grab (preventing illness is oppression?), a disease carried by outsiders (again, somehow it is not real but also something strangers bring? WHAT?), something that isn’t real so they flout precautions, something that isn’t real so they sabotage the medicines (but if it isn’t real, why bother sabotaging medicines?), a situation where the vaccine is free but a counterfeit card that falsely claims you were vaccinated costs $400 (so it would be cheaper to go along with the treatment than pretend you did), a private sector plot to embed microchips into people (for generally unexplained purposes, though when they are explained, it always involves something like the location your smartphone already records, which means an additional device would not be necessary)… In this bizarre current reality, the pandemic is somehow BOTH a situation where precautions against catching the illness are banned by a governor AND a situation where that governor’s state requires federal emergency supplies of hospital ventilators and monoclonal antibody treatments for the seriously ill, which the governor suggests people somehow self-medicate with for this illness he says isn’t serious?

If I had written ANY of these things into a fiction story, my writing would have been rejected as implausible. The publishers would have told me that people are not that stupid, and that I should feel bad about making my fellow Americans look so ridiculous.

-I mean, really.

I want people in my fiction writing to be both realistic and smart, but it feels like I can only have one of those two.

I am inspired to post this after reading the tweet above, about news that a sci-fi movie has been interpreted as reality by the anti-vaccine-far-right (who failed to even grasp basic details about the movie they are basing their nonsensical conspiracies on). Their nonsense has gotten so much press that the screenwriter for this remade sci-fi movie had to make public statements emphasizing that it is fiction:

(It is still strange to read something on Twitter and later find the tweets I read subsequently inspired news articles…)

The past several years have inspired many discussions about the death of parody in the face of an absurd reality, but the current absurd reality also is killing off the premise that the vast majority of people could consistently act intelligently. Maybe we could get to half, or nearly half, but not an overwhelming majority.

I want a future where people ARE actually intelligent. I want to WRITE futures in which people are intelligent!

I suppose my defense for stories with predominantly intelligent populations will be: yes, but I told you this is fiction.

Life: Escaping the Fog Belt

Watching the fog roll in just over sailboat height yesterday

Life in San Francisco: July was a very foggy month in my San Francisco neighborhood’s microclimate, and I’ve had to make field trips to other parts of town to see beyond the edges of our gray blanket. It still amazes me that a blue sky can be just a streetcar ride away!

Last weekend, I spent 6+ hours walking in the sun with another fog refugee on the east side of town. It was a delightful, relaxing, restorative day. I watched a bike rally and its DJ on the back of a flatbed truck; I had an excellent (yet overpriced) espresso drink; I advised my friend not to interact with a gathering of furries; we squirmed through a cheerful crowd of baseball fans; we enjoyed a delicious vegan Indonesian lunch at a picnic table; we explored a neighborhood she’d never visited; we had delicious frozen vegan desserts… [Drifting into a saffron-flavored reverie…]

I kept saying aloud: we are so LUCKY to live here. After sunset, we walked back to catch streetcars to return to our still-foggy homes. *sigh*

It was restorative not only because we enjoyed bright, mild weather, but also because it felt like the Before Times. The many traumas of the past year weren’t on the surface, and it was barely noteworthy to wear masks on transit or while ordering food.

We are so very lucky.

*

Life in a Global Pandemic: It has been discouraging to read the news on the dominance of the Delta COVID variant, and to see the local cases rise from low double digits up into the hundreds.

It is especially discouraging knowing that this scenario was preventable. That future similar (or worse) outcomes are preventable. But too many people are choosing not to contribute to prevention.

I now have my first, close/personal, vaccinated friend with a ‘breakthrough’ case. She is an organized person with natural curiosity, so she formally polled her social circles, and has come up with 14 breakthrough cases within her network. (Yes, she is in the greater Los Angeles area, which has been an infection hotspot this entire time, likely due to right wing anti-prevention sentiment.) This alarming information helps me reset some of my own planning about indoor activities as a vaccinated person, which I am less likely to expand now.

I’ve ordered some more fabric face masks in nice patterns, and in black. Including more that have a pocket for an anti-particulate-smoke filter.

*

Life in a Climate Crisis: Speaking of smoke masks, the climate crisis is in the news daily, for all the wrong reasons. Rather than great news about countries meeting their climate goals, there have been a long series of disasters relating to increasing, localized extremes. There were so many flood stories last month (Japan, China, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the US (New York City)) and so many fire stories (we have more area burned here in California than even last year gave us; Siberia is on fire; tourists are being evacuated from fast moving fires in the Mediterranean by boat!) that any disaster image that appeared on my phone’s screen from the news could be from ANYWHERE.

Because: the climate disaster is striking everywhere.

There were some unflattering quotes from survivors of the German floods saying that they had not believed this sort of thing could happen TO THEM, in THEIR country. (One of them named places where they WOULD expect this to happen, as if such events reflect a personal flaw of the citizens of those regions.)(*facepalm*) It suggested that they hadn’t had sympathy with flood-hit regions they had seen on the news. They hadn’t found it relevant when people in low-lying Pacific islands went to the UN, or when Greenlnd’s high northern communities were suffering, but NOW it is real to them.

Perhaps this is what it takes. Wealthy, developed countries watching flood waters destroy their own cities and towns. Perhaps that is what makes it real enough for urgent action.

*

The news is filled with stories of Americans who are hospitalized with COVID complications, who want the vaccine too late to save their lives. I desperately want us to be smarter than that – not just about COVID, but about our environment. Perhaps we are already in the climate-crisis-hospital stage, and I’m just not accepting it.

Weekend Under Clouds

Is it time to add another banner? I think it is! This isn’t recent, but I like the texture.

It was a good day to wear a jacket here in San Francisco, but just two and a half hours east where my parents live, it was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It was 107 there yesterday. The fact that there could be a fifty degree difference over such a short distance is amazing. I am grateful that the difference is in my favor. Hooray for the cooling waters of the Pacific! Hooray for the insulation of San Francisco Bay!

While my photographic plans today were foiled (they required direct sunlight from the east prior to 11am), I did travel to the eastern edge of town after lunch, and so enjoyed having a shadow for a few minutes.

*

The City still feels… off. Sleeping Beauty isn’t awake yet, and the sounds and sights remain muted. It is lively in spots – Japan Center’s Kinokuniya Building was HOPPING at 11am! – but then I can walk blocks without encountering another human.

Some favorite places are still boarded up. Paper covers too many windows. There are still holes in our urban fabric, and a sad sense that even more people are suffering than usual.

*

A friend has admitted that she dreads full re-opening and what passed for normal, because “normal” was too frantic for her, involved too many obligations and interactions that didn’t really suit her. It was an unexpected insight from someone who had previously just avoided the news.

It is worth thinking about: what the smaller impacts to daily life are that manifest along the edges of this still-unfolding tragedy which we might learn from.

(Aristotle described tragedies as being caused not by intentional villainy, but by a flaw in the character of the hero-protagonists. (See the explanation of Hamartia in Brittanica.) There certainly are a lot of human flaws on display during this pandemic!)

We could all benefit from living more thoughtful lives!

Life: Emerging from health order isolation

I’m writing after having some exciting experiences. I’ve dined with friends in a tent! I’ve visited an art museum!! I’ve eaten INDOORS, as the only customer at a restaurant! I’ve ridden INSIDE A STREETCAR! I’ve tested a camera! I’ve been outside without a mask!

These experiences are not what have kept me from posting here: exhaustion did that. I have been reading and drinking coffee, thankfully, so I do have books to write about, but my work schedule (unhealthy) plus a controlled experiment to determine if wheat is safe to eat again (IT IS NOT) laid me low for a few weeks, and I’m just emerging again now. Like the cicadas! Like my fellow SF residents, whose health order was updated on May 20th (sfdph.org).

I work in law, so I like the “redline” of the health order, which shows what changed:

It’s as if I finally exhaled some of the stress of ambient world conditions, but didn’t stop exhaling, and partly deflated.

~~~

My parents are both fully vaccinated. (Hooray!) I am fully vaccinated. (Hooray!) My local public hospital went a day without COVID patients for the first time since last spring. (Hooray!) My local public health department is celebrating ONE MILLION DOSES of vaccine successfully administered within our county. (Wow!) Even the national averages for new infections are dropping, despite strangely partisan resistance to disease prevention.

Locally (at least), we’ve turned a corner. I can exhale a little. I can hope a bit more.

~~~

The pandemic isn’t over, but I’m already looking at some elements of it retrospectively. I’ve formed some new habits that I will continue, like:

  • I will keep having a box of ‘environmentally responsible’ groceries delivered each week. (These are from an anti-food-waste business I’ve previously written of, which manages safe surplus and off-spec produce, such as potatoes that are too big, carrots that have two points, or tri-color quinoa that has too much of one color. NOTE: it takes a while to adjust their recommended orders until they really work for you: modify it actively until it makes sense! )
  • I continue to support my local, independent bookstores with my subscription to audiobook service Libro.fm, and will order from those same local bookstores at their websites (first choice) or through bookshop.org (second choice) when I can’t get across town to browse in person, rather than put those purchases off indefinitely, as I used to.
  • I may still mail film to my professional photo lab, rather than waiting until I have free weekends to visit them.
  • I will surely have dinner delivered twice a week, too, now that the delivery ranges expanded.
  • I’ll keep up these new pen pal relationships I’ve started, even though writing in German is more challenging than I’d expected. (See postage image, somewhere below.)
  • I learned to save some time for myself, rather than ALWAYS be available to others by phone or video call. (This sounds absurd – I live alone at the moment! – but you’d be surprised. Especially since some of my friends’ coping mechanisms involve very long contact, and/or working evenings and weekends to avoid dealing with pandemic news, and needing my help with things at odd hours, so that every evening and weekend day is interrupted by some work item…)
  • If I can arrange to work remotely, I’ll certainly do so: I get more sleep, enjoy more hot meals, and get more done with the time I’ve reclaimed from commuting, even though my commute wasn’t bad.

Staying indoors for a year has been hugely detrimental to my physical health, however, and resuming my sensible old habits may not be enough to correct that. I’m trying to ‘ramp up’ to at least the levels of activity I engaged in before the health orders took effect, and will need to adjust from there. How long does it take to undo a year’s worth of sedentary-yet-high-stress life? I’ll find out!