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!

Life: February and Early March 2021

Did I mention that this sentimental sunset is from the Before Times, shortly before the first local COVID-19 health order took effect? It is.

We are coming up on the one year mark for San Francisco’s local COVID-19 health orders, and there are reasons to HOPE, which I have… tried not to develop.

The reasons AGAINST early hope include: a rising third wave of infections in Europe (guardian.co.uk); the 2.6 million PLUS global deaths; the recent crossing of the 500,000 death line here in the U.S. (coronavirus.jhu.edu); and the mental health effects that all of this has had on all of us, and especially the impacts on essential workers.

The reasons FOR hope include: the approval of additional vaccines, the emergence of a government in the U.S. that believes in them and is making progress in rolling them out, and local test results finally sliding below 1 percent positive. You read that correctly!

This feels like REAL PROGRESS. Like the incredible sacrifices that so many have made are paying off. And with 200k+ residents of SF already one-shot into the vaccination program, it feels like we may beat the new variants that are wreaking havoc elsewhere, and get ahead of any potential additional waves.

I’ll feel better when my parents (who don’t live here in SF) are fully vaccinated. I’ll also feel better when most of the folks who need it the most here are covered – SF has extended eligibility to food service workers and people with qualifying conditions over the age of 16.

*

There have been some virtual memorials, but I feel like I need to go to a physical place to reflect on this and light a candle, or something. Something not just on a screen.

*

Colleagues are asking how I’ll celebrate when it’s safe to do that, and… I’m trying not to get attached to any particular plan.

I’m also trying not to yell at social contacts in Europe, who are complaining bitterly because they’ve been subject to restrictions since NOVEMBER or DECEMBER. I’ve been at this 51+ weeks, and I just am having trouble working up sympathy. Yes, I remember what it felt like, but no, I have difficulty feeling that they are reasonable.

*

Last night, I dreamt that I was wandering through the Inner Mission District, along an imaginary tributary to the real river that used to run down Caesar Chavez/Army. (Click for the real, historical waterway map (museumca.org).) There were paved plazas around the river, and European modernist buildings with long bands of horizontal windows all around. It was safe to eat indoors or out; it was safe to wander into cafes and chat; it was pleasant to do that. It felt normal and right.

My subconscious is already looking forward to post-pandemic cafe-sitting, and I look forward to catching up with its forward-looking vision…

Life: January 2021

I did not enjoy the month of January.

I’m not saying I didn’t have some good days, but the world and my country had some UNUSUALLY BAD DAYS, and so the math is unfavorable.

Beginning of the month: right-wing threats seemed to flood social media sites, egged on by the now-former president. I’d already been stressed by his ‘even if I lose I will stay’ rhetoric dating back to last summer, and no one seemed to be taking it very seriously. The lack of attention to on-line rhetoric was alarming.

January 6th: my midday meeting was interrupted when the partner of the person I was meeting with walked in to say that the US Capitol building was being attacked, and perhaps he could give that some attention? That was the beginning of many hours of horror.

January 8th: while the people who violently attacked the Capitol had been allowed to wander away freely, which was exasperating on every possible level, the US hit a daily death rate of FOUR THOUSAND PER DAY.

U.S. tops 4,000 daily deaths from coronavirus for 1st time
By EUGENE GARCIA, LISA MARIE PANE and THALIA BEATY
January 8, 2021 at ap.com

January 15th: The official global death tally from the COVID-19 Pandemic hit 2 million.

View of my phone’s home screen that morning

Global report: coronavirus death toll reaches 2 million
Tom Phillips, Guardian (guardian.co.uk)
Sat 16 Jan 2021 00.21 EST

January 19: The US hit an official death toll of four hundred thousand.

My homescreen again. Background art by me (Swiss watercolor pencil)

US coronavirus death toll passes 400,000 amid grim forecast over winter
Jessica Glenza, UK Guardian
Tue 19 Jan 2021 14.42 EST

That was ALL TOO MUCH. Plus, local COVID cases spiked again; another dear friend remained sick with COVID-19 for the entire month of January in a city with no hospital capacity; plus the US went on high alert once the authorities decided to actually read the threats against the government that people had been making online, and nearly every state had some threat made against their capitols and other government offices.

Yes, the Inauguration on January 20th went VERY WELL – it was great – and a relief! – to watch, and nearly impossible to concentrate on anything else. Yes, the new government appears to be off to a coherent, sane start.

Yes, my friend is still on the mend, and hasn’t had to be hospitalized, despite some worrying symptoms.

Yes, I made a ton of art on the weekends, which allowed me to turn my attention entirely into paint, color, and forms, and away from the madness and sickness that dominates the news.

But… I wouldn’t want to experience January 2021 again.

News: US Passes 20 million COVID-19 cases

This is not the start to 2021 that any of us wanted, but the awkward combination of federal indifference, essential worker obligation, and individually inaccurate personal risk assessments led predictably to this.

The data is wild – cases going up 237,000 cases a day in this country alone – and is what was predicted.

I went past a shopping mall yesterday, and the parking lot was nearly full. As if none of this is happening. It’s difficult to reconcile.

Life: Homebound Pandemic Holiday Break

I enjoy the solstice season and taking a little time off at the end of the year! Every plan I would ordinarily make with friends and family this week is unsafe and/or not possible, and so I’m ‘making do.’ Rather than hosting feasts, treating myself to spa- or museum- days, or dining with friends in a favorite vegan restaurant, I am: contemplating fiction (after a non-fiction-dominated year); reading an amazing Alice Munro short story collection (which I love from the first page); talking rare walks that are long enough to make me ache; experimenting with another spicy peanut sauce recipe; adjusting my news consumption; re-evaluating my exercise habits; enjoying a lovely channa/palak/fresh tomato dish with fire in it; adjusting my hair color intensity; waiting for my first sweet potato pie to cool off; prioritizing my creative projects; rationalizing my sudden obsession Rumiko Takahashi’s story, InuYasha; meditating slightly more often; and wishing that so many things were different.

The weight of the year is catching up with me, and while I’ve ‘talked a good game’ to encourage others, I’m really FEELING it now.

~~~

I have a heavy-texting friend who hasn’t replied to texts all week. I’m certain it means she has boarded a plane and is socializing in some COVID-hotspot OTHER THAN the one she lives in. I’m not going to ask about it. Or comment if she tells me.

My list of first and second-degree acquaintances with COVID has been growing slowly, but not slowly enough!

There are four people I know personally who have had it. (1 in the US, 3 in Sweden), and eight second-degree “friends-of-friends” (6 US, 2 Netherlands), but from the third-degree outward the numbers get crazy.

For example: one of the second-degree contacts took on a mask-free pandemic remodeling project at her house, and after interacting in close quarters indoors repeatedly, many of those who worked on it got COVID – the architect, the general contractor, some of his team, and several of the subcontractors, in addition to my second-degree relation. And I don’t know how many people THEY infected subsequently. I don’t even want to think about it.

~~~

I was chatting yesterday with a friend who recovered from COVID, and we agreed that it’s difficult to be comfortable outside of home with the current conditions. We can’t trust others to keep us safe: some people we know take risks we find absurd, and the news has already shown us that some people with COVID symptoms and even positive tests lie about their condition in order to travel, exposing others. I’m trying to warm up to the idea of being indoors with other masked people, behaving semi-normally, but that isn’t an option on offer now, and will still require trust. (I wasn’t ready for the unmasked outdoor dining across households, and seeing that in action didn’t help! They were SO CLOSE! Yikes!)

If we were living in a more developed country, where both small businesses and individuals were being subsidized during this crisis, it wouldn’t be so painful, as we’d know that we were all moving toward the same goals with basic security in place. If only.

~~~

I’m wishing you safety and health as we wind up this difficult year. As I work up the energy, I’ll wish you (and all other living beings) even more good things!