False Alarms

These are odd times (not exactly news, I realize) when every brief pang of pain or off-feeling stirs up thinking “Oh my…do I have IT?” Whether it’s flaring allergies with a little sore throat, or maybe a bit of a flush feeling, or just overall achiness and malaise, we’re on constant alert these days for signs of “it.”

Sometimes allergy symptoms are just allergies, or various aches and pains are just…transient aches and pains. Once you past 50, weird aches and sensations just happen sometimes. Before 2020, I would likely ignore these same feelings (unless they quickly became worse) and dismiss them, but now? The pandemic is turning some of us into amateur hypochondriacs.

That little corner of the mind, the one that loves to feed off fear and disruptive moments, is having more fun than the rest of us these days. My rule of thumb is always “is this a new feeling or have I experienced this before?” which, so far, is always “no, nothing new.” Usually a comforting thought, but one can’t be too cautious. Typically, I then get busy doing other things and the instigators tend to go away in due time.

As we enter this next post-vaccine behavior phase, I wonder if we’ll see case counts spike from lax behaviors. In Michigan, even though vaccinations are on a upward trend, our case numbers are climbing. This could be the usual delay in contagion and statistics, or could mean people are getting too cavalier again. Hard to draw any real conclusions.

Ultimately, this is a war waged one soldier at a time. Each of us can only be accountable for ourselves. If we’re each doing the right thing, that should be enough. Besides, similar to my option of choosing how I react to my false alarms, it’s all each of us can control.

The War

It may seem odd or grim that I’ve been binging on World War II documentaries lately. The first few were true documentary series with film footage from the time across many episodes and mostly focused on the Pacific theatre of war. The current HBO MAX 10-episode mini-series, The Pacific, is an amazing production recreated with actors and is extremely period-accurate and realistic. Unlike many Hollywood war movies, this series shows what it probably really was like: the frightened kids, poor logistics, horrible conditions, unfathomable carnage, and more luck to survive it than mere bravado.

My father was a career naval officer, serving near the end of the war, and later as a pilot during the Korean War aboard a carrier in the north Pacific, then held a desk job until he retired when I was in high school. Since we lived in base housing throughout my growing up, my friends and I didn’t play cowboys and Indians, we played soldiers. Some of my fond memories as a 10-year-old living on the base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were those moments after DEFEX (defense exercises) when my buddies and I would go out exploring and find cool stuff left or lost by the soldiers. And while this isn’t a pro-war upbringing story, it is one of how WWII was the last war we fought united in a just cause. Later in high school I would forget those days playing soldier and peacefully protest our Vietnam War involvement (and escaped getting drafted).

Why I found these long documentaries and mini-series interesting about an insanely brutal conflict fought over 80 years ago with so much death and waste, was a bit of a mystery. I realized around the sixth The Pacific episode there was a parallel in deaths and loss, and a nation’s citizen involvement, between World War II and our current pandemic war. Both were times of collectively fighting a known enemy, but in WWII our foes were visible, whereas our pandemic war’s enemy is invisible.

Back in the ‘40s, patriotism pulsed strongly across America and played a significant part in why we prevailed. Now it seems we battle both the unseen enemy and a portion of our society who deny the science and ignore the rules of engagement that could help us win this war sooner. Back then, we eventually prevailed from superior manufacturing and technology. Today we are beginning to use the only “bullet” we have to fight this invisible invader: vaccines for the masses. Yet we may only prevail if we can unite under a common cause and be willing to do everything to keep ourselves safe and those around us.

After WWII, those who survived and returned had a hero’s welcome, but many returned scarred in unseen ways. We who hope to survive this current war will get to embrace a new “normal.” Those whose denial and selfish behavior contributed to themselves or others to suffer or die, sadly will probably carry the unseen scars of this pandemic war for the rest of their lives.

Sanity Courtesy of ORT*

How do we cope during this pandemic to fulfill that human need to buy stuff? We can’t go to stores (especially when many are closed), we can’t hold curbside garage sales, that religion of the bargain hunter, and we can’t ply the mall walkways to find what we need we didn’t know we need until we see it.

No, the solution and newest sanity therapy these days is *Online Retail Therapy. Sales are booming online for merchants for obvious staples, but even more so for those proprietors of entertainment and activity goods useful for distractions and indoor pleasures. No wonder the streaming services are doing so well. And try to find a cool puzzle or game in stock online these days.

As a stationery nerd, one who’s had to cease the formerly beloved distraction of wandering office supply stores, or the few cool true stationery stores left, not to mention garage and estate sales, it’s been a dry season this past year.

Fortunately, it’s been a new world of discovering lots of small shops online selling the goods we love, both here in the states and elsewhere. But my real guilty ORT solution falls down that much beloved (and dreaded) rabbit hole of subscriptions. From limited Blackwing Volumes pencils, to Field Notes limited edition notebooks, Dapper Notes handmade notebooks, ArtSnacks monthly boxes, Mouse Books pocket readers, and on, and on, these subscriptions have been the modern equivalent of care packages in the old days. Who doesn’t remember being away at college and getting a care package full of goodies from home to sooth the separation blues?

The problem becomes, though, that in active ORT engagement, such satisfying moments of search, finding, ordering, waiting, then finally opening, tempt like opening a fresh bag of Lay’s potato chips: you can’t “eat” just one.

Now that I and many I know are getting the vaccine, can the end of ORT been near? Probably not. While these one-two stabs of hope open up possibilities, don’t see any widespread opening of shops and old-style, in-person shopping resuming soon. So I’ll have to continue with my doctor-ordered ORT (nevermind what doctor, that’s not important right now…) for now. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but I’m staring to have the problem of where to store all this ORT goodness.

One Down, One To Go

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay 

Yesterday was my first of two COVID-19 vaccinations. Who knew getting needle-stabbed would be so eagerly anticipated, a celebrated milestone of this ongoing pandemic reality show?

Connecting this surreal experience to anything similar in my past was challenging. Between the calm, purposefully distanced elders in line contrasted with the high-energy, helpful county health workers moving us through the lines, I couldn’t help think about this slice of American hope, one courtesy of socialism.

With too many Americans falsely considering any form of socialism as the devil’s work, yesterday was an excellent example of why our democratic socialism works: public county health department and public workers delivering publicly provided free COVID-19 vaccinations to a public regardless of race, creed, color, or economic status. Maybe doubters will finally realize our lives depend on democratic socialism in too many ways to count here, and it’s a welcomed benefit of American life.

As I sat in my chair at the back of an elementary school’s cafeteria, safety distanced from others to wait out my 15-minute “what if” moment, I had time to think about the significance of this experience.

In our now-lost former normal times, elementary kids would be in this room, either during an indoor activity, or since it was around noon eating lunch and learning essential social skills: coping with others, trading lunch food (really Mom, PB&J again??), or hanging out with goofy friends.

That sad thought morphed into a sad empathy, realizing in my six decades on this planet, unlike some, I’d never had to endure bread lines familiar to my parent’s generation, or waiting in lines for food stamp, or water bottles after a natural disaster. Yet here I sat, dutifully waiting, complying, and patiently distancing while the monkey mind wondered if I’d die in the next 8 minutes from shot side effects.

I’m no stranger to shots or needles, at least the modern version of me. But at the end of my 10th decade, my lack of any shot or needle injection experience would soon change. Raised in a household with a religious exemption to such things, the only previous shots were the first-born ones like smallpox.

Before my memorable summer #10 would begin, the Navy transferred my father to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Navy didn’t allow our family’s religious exemption when transferred overseas, so I had some catching up to do. Every Saturday for eight weeks my Mom would drive me to the Navy clinic for shots: not just one, but one in EACH arm, for the next eight Saturdays. Yup, 16 shots in all.

Happy Navy family arriving…

As a boy raised not to cry but to “take it like a man,” those were testing Saturdays. Most, as I recall, weren’t that bad, but the Saturday I got the yellow fever shot (long needle) I recall seriously betraying my manly training. Despite the dread each week as Saturday approached, offset by Mom’s buying me an ice cream after (first life lesson that such rewards really don’t make up for the event), I survived and didn’t catch any nasty bugs during my two-years at Guantanamo.

Now my waiting clock resets, and the countdown begins toward shot #2. Its reward is the promise of ~90% risk-free, earned by my immune system kicked into learning-crazy mode from the pseudo invaders. It’s a science miracle this vaccine developed so quickly, but there’s still much work on it ahead. I’m in the camp that expects our future fall regimen will be a one-two protective punch from a flu, then a COVID shot for the foreseeable future.

I can now add yesterday to my short-list of “where were you…” events such as JFK’s assassination, the moon landing, and 9/11. But getting this vaccination, while brimming with hope, comes with a nagging fear that many will either refuse it, or worse, think they’re immune now and shed the masking/distancing.

I’ll keep the same personal protocols going, at least for now, and probably permanently adopt wearing a mask in high-density public situations. The shot gives me a new, glorious feeling that it will now significantly lower my risk against the worst. And that’s well worth a couple stabs in the arm.

A Year Living the Pandemic

Today is one year since I first reacted to the oncoming pandemic threat and made necessary lifestyle changes. A year ago, I flew back from the Baltimore Pen Show, somewhat nervous, yet conscious of a risk I might catch COVID-19 (albeit a low one at the time). I also had the odd feeling it would be my last flight, or traveling anywhere, for a while.

I knew when I flew to Baltimore things were getting real on the West Coast, but not yet in Michigan. That changed by the time I flew back. Indications were increasing that Michigan would mandate, if not the whole country, a lockdown.

I’ve always been wary of flying, since airplanes are essentially high-flying germ laboratories. That wariness combined with anxiety over whether anyone on board came from the West Coast, or worse, from the Far East, made for an uneasy flight. During those innocent early days we were not yet savvy on the science of this contagion, so masks on that flight weren’t the fashion statement they are now.

Nobody back then would believe we’d be here a year later knowing the virus rampaged our country killing over 500,000 Americans (20% of worldwide deaths) and infecting over 26 million of us (23% of worldwide cases). And who can estimate the extent of damage economically, socially, or worse, mentally, from the onslaught of COVID-19? We’ve crossed over into new, uncharted territory for certain.

It’ll Be Over Soon

We all likely thought this would be a short-term effort to avoid contagion, and like most flu-like bugs, would soon play out. Still is a matter of time, but the scale shifted from hoping for soon to realizing it’s now an open-ended, who-knows-when window for the foreseeable future. I think many Americans adopted the classic American attitude of NIMBY (not in my backyard) and went on with their merry, socializing lives.

When I got home after Baltimore, my housemate and I altered things to improve our odds of staying healthy and not impacting others. Common-sense steps soon emerged to limit outside trips and exposure to only essentials, mask up when outside, sanitize everything incoming, and of course, begin the pandemic two-step dance we’d all come to love: don’t touch your face, and wash your hands like a surgeon. We used up hand lotion quickly until our hands eventually acclimated to the abuse.

We continued grocery runs and library visits (they would soon shutter), but did more targeting of visits during hours with the fewest shoppers. Alas, my beloved and frequent coffee shop and library hauntings came to an abrupt stop. Another related banning ceased my all-day outings via bus to putz around downtown Ann Arbor. Oh, how I miss those coffee shops and downtown days! I took both for granted and didn’t fully appreciated them as I should have… obvious now in hindsight.

Soon we were in the trenches with the masses trying to find and buy masks, gloves, disinfectant, and toilet paper. Through all of it, we never lost our humor, nor did the Internet, forever a source of laughs and giggles from the deluge of memes around hoarding toilet paper at least. From that first taste of wartime-like rationing, it just got more fun. Months crawled by. We couldn’t name the day but could the date, sort of. And some months seemed to have not 30, but 60 days. Endlessness.

Rear-View Mirror

Looking back over the year, I coped well and progressed in many areas, aided by being a natural introvert. But I am cognizant many, many others suffered and were not in the stable mindset and financial place I was. To them, the pandemic was far beyond inconvenience into the realm of a deadly and life-altering plague. So many have suffered, many more than should have. Poor timing on the virus’ part to show up when our country was enduring the worst leadership in its history combined with a lack of empathy at the helm. Political ego, narcissism, greed, and lies remain high on the list of reasons we’ve suffered the staggering deaths and contagions.

It was also a year I was greatly helped by a kiss of serendipitous timing. At the close of 2019, several key events and decisions would set me up to better survive the year ahead in relative happiness and possibilities:

  • My housemate and I swapped rooms, and I took the larger one which helped me set up a writer’s studio for my expected work ahead. This room proved to be an ideal retreat to spend most of my days. Conducive to reading, studying, and writing, it would provide some solace over my loss of coffee-shop hopping. With most of the room devoted to these activities, lockdown was, and continues to be, bearable.
  • In the fall of 2019, I revived my online stationery shop, thinking it would embrace my stationery passions while providing a consistent, part-time activity offsetting the mental energies needed for writing. An added plus would be the online socializing and community building with like-mind stationery geeks through Notegeist, the shop I launched on January 2, 2020.

The two other planned efforts for 2020 would sadly not happen, namely writing leading to publishing (the shop quickly took all my focus and became full-time), and my beginning a multi-year, major travel effort enabled by stopping my full-time RVing and the selling the van in October 2019.

Forward With Renewed Hope

At the end of 2020 I was ready to shut down the shop and head into 2021, positioned (finally) to write full time. And travel? Still have to wait (maybe in 2022?), but do expect I’ll get some Michigan camping bursts in this coming summer.

Life under a pandemic eventually settled into a different “normal” than we’ve known, once again proving humans can be resilient creatures. While some of us suspected our “normal” would not return soon, few realized how long it may take to even partly reverse pandemic’s undeniable altering of what “normal” could look like.

Unfortunately, pandemic life also revealed shocking responses from too many Americans. From the stark, selfish actions of many who cared zero about others but only raged about their “rights” infringed by masking, to the weirder-still denial from educated (we assume) citizens about science and the virus, believing a “making shit up” President over science and virology experts. Many claimed (and some still do) that it’s a hoax, or a liberal conspiracy to swing the election. If it is a hoax, it’s a damn “good” one since the facts now are it’s killed more Americans than died during BOTH World Wars I and II. That’s one clever hoax! America is closing in on passing the totals for ALL wars except the Civil War (620,000 then). Let’s hope we don’t eventually eclipse that one too before this is over.

As a practicing Stoic, perhaps the credit for mentally surviving my first pandemic year should go to my learned resolve to focus on and react only to those things I can control. For those I do not, I remain aware but not react or freak out (mostly). That steering of my ship through troubled waters has been key to my keeping it together and healthy.

The reality of now is to stay healthy, avoid infection, and avoid affecting others if it happens. These should be everyone’s goal in the weeks, months, and yes, years ahead. There will still be deniers, and a growing concern that after vaccination many will unwisely toss their masks and distancing protocols thinking they’re immune now (and as has been shown, ignoring the risk to others around them).

I’m in the vaccination queue here now, waiting for the “lottery” to draw my name. The shots will not radically change my behavior until vaccinating the herd majority happens and data rapidly declines. Even then, I’ll continue wearing a mask when out and distancing from others. But it will certainly make me feel my risk factor dropped considerably. For the future me, inside dining is off the list indefinitely, as is being in large groups.

Experts now say we may be at the beginning of a continuous wave of similar, deadly viruses. Our annual Fall flu shot will likely now have an annual companion: a coronavirus booster or new annual unknown vaccine, ever morphing to handle the latest onslaught.

Despite the grim year, there is hope we’ll come out of this to be smarter and more caring about others than we have been. I’m betting we’ll continue to find ways to prosper, be happy, and enjoy life. It seems the final pandemic casualty is our labeling everyday life as “normal.” Our future reality may become one of ever-shifting “normal” du jours.