Sunday, April 12, 2020

I Know It Seems Far, But Just Be Where You Are

One of the odd things about our current moment is how people use oblique phrases to refer to it. Like, for example, "our present moment." I've been really struck by this in the last couple of weeks of watching YouTube videos and reading blog posts and tweets and Facebook updates and all sorts of stuff. How often people will say things like "Obviously, things aren't great now, and I thought we could all use some cheering up..." or "Because of the current situation, maybe you want to learn how to make awesome omelets right at home..." or "Like the rest of you, I've been seeing my home in a new light, and maybe these drapes can help brighten yours..." I've imagined someone in the future, say ten or fifteen years from now, playing back an old podcast or vlog or something and having to stop and wonder: "Wait, what happened back then? What are they talking about?" There's an elision in our discourse that's really fascinating to me: I think it's the first time in nineteen years that we've truly felt like everyone is on the same page for what we're talking about and explicitly calling it out is... I dunno, gauche or wasteful or something.

This post is partly a reaction to that. My experience isn't particularly interesting compared to what everyone else is going through now, but I kind of want to dispel that lacuna and talk about what's been going on!

I have no clear memory of when I first heard of the coronavirus. I rarely read science or health articles that pop up in my feeds, so I'm sure I saw a headline at some point and didn't bother reading it. I think the first sustained discussion of it I saw was in mid or late February, when I was briefly following Matt Stoller after reading Goliath: he was sounding the alarm loudly, and had been for some time: not just the looming public health crisis and cost of lives, but also the supply chain disruptions that even then were starting to show up. But, to be honest, I mostly dismissed him as a crank - he complained more about Obama than about Trump when discussing the coronavirus and seemed determined to kneecap any left-leaning politician.

I started to pay some attention in early March, when the first of my company's clients started mandating all their employees to work from home. I'm not totally sure what internal discussions they had leading up to that, but some executives had recently returned from an unintentionally extended stay in Asia, and it's possible that contributed to their decision. I started to consider actually taking it seriously a week later, when Google and Twitter started mandating all of their employees to work from home. At the same time, I was personally skeptical that there was a cause for alarm. Partly that's probably my generally optimistic outlook on life: I tend to think that things will work out fine, and more often than not they do. I've also grown somewhat inured to short-term alarms about, say, large storms or other disruptions. There's often a media frenzy, people rush out to buy bottled water and toilet paper, then everything is fine. I didn't want to be a "prepper" and deliberately continued living my life like normal, to some extent proud that I wasn't "freaking out."

This lasted, uh, two days. The second Friday of each month is our "Dev Friday," when the company caters in a meal for everyone and we gather for an all-hands (small-)company-wide meeting. The management team had been keeping an eye on developments: there was no official policy from any government body, but the accelerating private-sector-led lockdown efforts made it increasingly clear that there was some cause for concern. Early in the week we officially canceled our all-hands, reasoning that it might plausibly fall under the umbrella of "large gatherings" that had led to conferences and concerts and sporting games getting shut down. At the last minute, an announcement went out on Thursday afternoon that we would be working from home on Friday and for the following week.

That Friday and the weekend immediately following stand out as one of the more chaotic moments of the coronavirus crisis. Which is actually rather encouraging; on the whole people have been very careful and respectful. But that weekend there was a mounting crush on supermarkets and big-box stores as families across the Bay Area decided that they needed to stock up. I think this is entirely reasonable: we'd all been told to prepare to spend two weeks in quarantine if infected, and to minimize unnecessary outings and travel, so of course people who ordinarily would only keep a week's worth of food at home would suddenly decide that they need twice or triple or quadruple as much. But this all happened in a short amount of time, and we've all seen the result: alarming pictures on social media of bare shelves, no bread, no milk, entire aisles wiped out of bottled water (??) and such.

My own personal experiences were much calmer. I was mentally kicking myself for not making similar trips in the weeks previous when I was posturing (to myself! not even to anyone else!) at how chill and non-alarmist I was being. But, as I took inventory of my home, I found that I was in good shape. The big item people were worried about (and are still worried about) is toilet paper; but I've always bought that in bulk, had gotten a huge 48-pack a month or so before, and had more than enough. Likewise I was all good on paper towels and facial tissue and hand soap, all boring stuff that I buy in large quantities and keep around. On the food front, I keep a permanent small stash as part of my earthquake preparedness kit, and on top of that there's all the random stuff I have in my cupboard at any time. My amount of food was definitely sufficient, especially since, unlike an earthquake, I didn't need to worry about running out of water or losing electricity for my freezer or my stove. I had (and have) plenty of dried beans and grains and all sorts of stuff.

Still, while I had plenty to eat, I wouldn't be eating well. My normal diet includes a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, which is healthy, but is not something that you can just stock up on. My thoughts immediately turned to my beloved local farmer's market, which I patronize throughout the year. Was it still going to be open? I did some Googling and did not get a clear answer. The official page for the market hadn't been updated in 8 years and, of course, didn't reference the coronavirus. I'd read that some local markets, like the one in San Carlos, were shutting down indefinitely. Another market organizer was quoted as saying, I imagine somewhat incredulously, "People need to eat food! We can't just shut down."

Fortunately, my market had the latter philosophy. I was somewhat nervous going there, having spent too much time the previous night scrolling through photos of doom and gloom from Safeway, Target, Whole Foods and other major retailers. In contrast, my market was totally fine. There were about as many shoppers as usual, and people seemed to be more conscientious about giving each other space. All the sellers were there and seemed to be in good spirits. I bought a little more than I normally would; fortunately it's the late winter and early spring crops in season, so the foods are already tilted towards sturdier and more storage-friendly options.

With these fresh foods, I determined, I was all set for the weeks to come. I tend to do a fair amount of my shopping online anyways, and could get necessary items shipped to me. I have pretty fast Internet for entertainment and remote working. I'd picked up my enormous copy of Capital and Ideology from the library earlier that week, giving me plenty of reading material. And... that was it! It felt oddly comforting to feel like I was all prepared and ready, still a little frightening to think of the changes in the world and the potential spread of illness, but I felt like my little corner was warm and secure and safe.

Immediately after that somewhat chaotic weekend, things somehow ramped up to an even more alarming tone on Monday. There had been some previous government movements over the prior month or so: Mayor London Breed had declared a State of Emergency in San Francisco before the first reported case in the city, and there had been targeted guidance against gatherings of 1000 people, then 500 people, then 50 people. On Monday, though, the Public Health Officers of most counties in the Bay Area issued by far the most strict thing yet: an official legal order to "shelter in place." Millions of people throughout the region were commanded to stay in their homes. The exceptions were vanishingly small: you could leave to buy food from the grocery store, or get medicine from the pharmacy, or to exercise outside. Anyone who didn't work in an "essential business" and couldn't work from home no longer had a job.

There was a fair amount of alarm over the order, coupled with acceptance. I started to wonder: How would it be enforced? Would cops start arresting people who are outside? That seemed ludicrous, but, to be fair, the idea of shutting down the economy also seemed ludicrous just a week earlier. Fortunately the orders were well-written, accompanied by a much longer interpretive FAQ that helped spell out what was and wasn't allowed.

The order was scheduled to last through Friday, April 7th, just over three weeks. Even at the start I was a little skeptical that it would be over that soon: either this was all a false alarm, which seemed increasingly unlikely; or we hadn't even started a pandemic, which seemed like it would definitely last much longer than three weeks. But having some sort of timeline was helpful. On the work front, we had initially envisioned rolling week-long work-from-home periods, deciding each Thursday whether to remain closed the following week; with the official Order in place, we could just point to that as our guidance for when to return to the office.

Everything kept happening faster and faster. We had barely gotten our head around the Shelter In Place order when the State of California issued its own Order later that same week. This was very similar to the Bay Area's Order, with one significant difference: It was indefinite, with no announced termination date. Needless to say, that felt ominous. But it was also somewhat cheering to think that what we had been doing for the last week was the right thing, that we were on the right track, and that more people were doing the same things. And I did have more and more of a sense of "we": a sense of pride and connection with my local community, knowing that millions of people around me are going through similar experiences for similar goals.

I joked early on that I felt especially well prepared to shelter in place. I'm a natural introvert and am perfectly happy spending time by myself. My favorite activities include reading, playing video games, cooking, and other stuff that I do at home anyways. That said, while I'm sure I have it easier than most people, it definitely has not been a super-fun experience. One early thing I needed to figure out was how to work from home. I actually really enjoy being at the office and, even though my job can easily be done remotely, I almost never work from home unless I have an appointment or some specific need to do so. I'd initially thought, optimistically, that at least work would be more relaxing: I'd be slicing two hours of commuting out of every day, freeing up ten whole hours each week, which sounded great. But after the first couple of days I felt the opposite: I ended each day drained, anxious, unhappy. I came to realize that I was working non-stop: not even taking walks during the day, not stopping for lunch, just hunched over my laptop endlessly.

I gradually rolled out more structure. One silly thing about my setup is that I have a home-office-type room here, but it's far from my wireless router and so my video call quality in that room is poor. I like working in my dining room, which has lots of natural light and a rock-solid wireless connection. But that naturally causes work to bleed into non-work. I started keeping a rigid work schedule: opening my laptop at a certain hour, setting an away message and tipping the lid mostly closed during lunch, and closing it altogether at another hour. For the first week I sat in one of my dining room chairs, but then I started rolling my office chair in to the dining room in the morning and rolling it back into my home office at night. I think that helps a lot too. Fundamentally, I'm really missing that hour of commute at the end of my workday that helps me disconnect from my work thoughts and get relaxed for my evening. I think these tweaks to my physical environment have helped. I still don't have as much separation as I would like, but I'm feeling psychically much healthier in the evening than I was before.

You'll read a lot of the same advice in articles on how to work from home. Try to keep a routine, shower, put on work clothes, and so on. My company has also made a strong effort to keep a level of social engagement during this time. In the physical office, people really enjoy going to get coffee in the morning. There are usually multiple "runs" throughout the morning, depending on which of two options people prefer and when they arrive at the office. On that first... hm, either Friday or Monday I started an ad-hoc Slack video call for a virtual coffee run: we're all in our own homes, sipping our own coffees, but we can all see each others' faces and chat about what we're doing, which feels really comforting and nice. That very soon morphed into a semi-official company-wide coffee outing as a recurring optional meeting invite. Originally it was on Google Meet (hangout), but, like many other people, we've found that Zoom has a much better interface for seeing lots of people at the same time (as opposed to focusing on the one person who's currently talking). I was initially skeptical that this would work, as it seems like having more than a few people in the same unstructured video call is a recipe for chaos. But it's actually been great, and an oddly accurate approximation for how our real-world coffee experiences go. A few folks are more chatty and extroverted, others of us are quieter but still chime into the conversation, everyone is smiling and friendly. There's a very appealing looseness to it, with different people popping in on different days and ducking in or out based on their imminent meetings.

In addition to those video chats, my daily walks have been really nice. I typically go for one walk around 10am and another around 2pm, although that can shift a lot depending on what meetings I have scheduled. The route I walk takes maybe 20-25 minutes. Interestingly, it isn't one that I regularly walked in the many years I've lived here. My normal exercise is a great trail with a steep hike up to and along a ridgeline; it's close to home, but still requires a car to get to. When I do walk locally, it's usually to a destination in the downtown area. This particular route crosses a railroad track and loops through a residential neighborhood, including a long stretch with a linear city park. It isn't super-scenic, but I've come to really treasure it. There's almost no traffic, a few other pedestrians, some interesting houses to look at and some green spaces to walk past.

It seems like the number of people exercising outdoors has been gradually increasing over the month of the lockdown. It still isn't congested, but whereas before I would see maybe 3 other walkers during one of my jaunts, now it's often more like 12. I wonder how much of that is from people getting laid off and spending more time at home, and how much is from people feeling stir-crazy indoors and needing to get out, and how much is just random variations during the day. I've also noticed more cats prowling around outdoors.

The local Bay Area governments determined that our regional order is complementary with the statewide order, so both are in effect at the same time. The Bay Area one was officially updated on March 31st, further cracking down on some activities and extending the duration out through May 3rd. There has been consternation about large groups of people flocking to parks and beaches on the weekend to see friends, not observing social distancing. The state has closed parking lots as a result, and our local order now says that while being outside for exercise is permitted, you cannot travel further than 5 miles from your home. That doesn't directly affect me since my routine walk falls well within that boundary, but it is a little sad to think that I can't legally go to my favorite park even if I wanted to. They've also closed dog parks and other areas where people were congregating.

The other major update since this all started has been around wearing masks. Since shelter-in-place started, I have seen more people wearing masks than usual, but everyone has been following the official pleas to not use medical-grade N95 masks. Recently, the CDC updated its guidelines: previously they said that wearing masks was unnecessary, but now they recommend everyone in public places to wear a homemade, non-medical mask. From my reading of the order, it sounds like this is a strong recommendation if you're going to a store or a similar location where you may even temporarily be within 6 feet of another person. But it doesn't sound like it's required if you're just out walking in your neighborhood as long as you keep your distance from other people. I was flummoxed when I first heard the new recommendations: I don't own a sewing machine, or even a needle and thread, and don't have a hot glue gun or similar fastening device. But fortunately there is a good video from the CDC for making a bandana mask, and there are also options based on old T-Shirts, none of which require sewing equipment.

I made a mask, and have only used it once. This morning, in fact! For yet another trip to the farmer's market. In the month since shelter-in-place started, I have gone shopping three times, once to Trader Joe's and twice to the farmer's market, and this is my first outing since the new CDC guideline. I was actually kind of surprised by how few people were wearing masks. Every vendor was, but only maybe about a third of the shoppers; even the lady who seemed to be organizing the market was maskless.

It seems like each place is coming up with their own guidelines on how to safely operate, both on a market-by-market and even a stall-by-stall basis. At this market, some of the produce stalls were set up as normal with vegetables stacked on tables, but the whole stand blocked off with police-style yellow tape. Instead of each shopper handling the veggies, you tell the worker what you want to get, and they bag it for you. Which I think is great, in the circumstances... I mean, ordinarily one of the things I love about farmer's markets is picking out what I want to get, but of course it makes tons of sense to minimize cross-contamination with strangers.

I've been thinking a lot about how to pay: what's the least-risky thing to do? I actually finally set up my Android phone specifically to be able to use contactless payments at Trader Joe's: you don't need to touch the same PIN pad as other shoppers or hand bills to the clerk, just wave your phone to pay. At the markets I typically use cash, but a few vendors are set up to take credit cards. I asked this stand if they took cards, and they said "Yes", so I handed one over, thinking that it was probably safer. And then realized that they were using a Square terminal, and I still needed to sign for the transaction. I was one of the first people there this morning and was probably one of the first people to touch that screen, and hopefully they're wiping it down throughout the day, but still... it's so funny how things we never thought about before are now fraught with meaning! I'm not a germophobe or anything, but I did pause for a second before touching that screen to finish my transaction.

I paid cash at the other stalls.

Turning back time a little: I think my Trader Joe's visit was the second week of the lockdown. It is funny how grocery stores have become incredibly important now, as basically the sole sanctioned activity we can participate in. I wanted to wait for the initial wave of panic shoppers to pass and for stores to have a chance to restock. This would be my first "real" shopping trip since the coronavirus got on my radar: again, I had enough food at home for sustenance, but unless I was content eating beans and weird ancient grains for weeks I wanted to build out my larder.

I've always really liked my neighborhood Trader Joe's. Every TJ's is different and they're almost all great; this one in particular isn't nearly as hectic and busy as most others in the Bay Area. I've been going there for years, recognize most of the staff, I like their products and prices and overall cheery demeanor. I've been impressed by how they are managing things in this period. As soon as the official Shelter In Place order came out, they implemented strong social distancing policies at all of their local stores. They limit the number of shoppers inside at one time to protect against crowding. Outside, people peacefully assemble in a long, long line.

I'd been keeping an eye on the store throughout the week, trying to get a sense for when it was busiest, and eventually headed over on a Tuesday afternoon. They marked out 6-foot distances with pieces of masking tape, which is a fantastic way to visualize the distance you're supposed to keep and remind others to do the same. The line was longer than I expected, but not terrible. I think I waited for about 20 minutes to get inside. As the worker ushered me in, she squirted hand sanitizer into my hands and told me that the shopping basket handles had already been disinfected. I grabbed a basket and started shopping.

As with my farmer's market run, I did end up buying more than I normally would. TJs has a limit of 2 per item, which I think is a great way to defend against hoarding. Personally, I want to make as few trips as possible to minimize my risk and others', so I feel fine about getting more food than usual; I think in normal times I probably go to TJs once every 10-14 days, and now I would like to go monthly if possible. Anyways. For the most part they had everything I wanted. There were some minor substitutions I made: they were out of the brown basmati rice I prefer, but had plenty of white jasmine rice, which is perfectly good. I got the stuff I normally like to get: frozen salmon fillets, ground turkey and hamburger buns, lots and lots of nuts. The one thing they were completely out of that I wanted was flour, both white and whole-wheat. That was actually a bit of a bummer: I'd finally gone to the store in large part because I was running out of flour and only had enough for one more cycle of my sourdough starter. But in the circumstances it still felt like a successful trip.

I got home, put away all my groceries and then went online to look for flour. It was completely out of stock at Target and Safeway and other online-ordering places. I checked on eBay and was shocked at the prices people were asking, like $40 for a 5 lb bag of all-purpose flour. I then went to King Arthur Flour. Their site warned that they were running behind and that orders would be delayed a week or two, but that they were working as hard as they could to ship stuff out. I ordered two bags of all-purpose and one of whole-wheat, not batting an eye at the $8 shipping charge.

The flour did come, almost exactly one week later; I think they did overnight shipping or something once it finally went out their door, since it arrived super-quickly after shipping. I was pleased, as I had exactly no flour left at home, but one fresh loaf of sandwich sourdough that I'd squeezed out with my remnants. I was mostly excited for baking. In the last few weeks I've rediscovered a love for sweets, and have baked my way through cookies and brownies and cakes. With the flour shortage I'd sort of cobbled together some weird gluten-free flours I'd accumulated, which turned out OK, but it's very encouraging to have real proper flour again, and I'm already thinking about what to make next.

I am very curious how I'm going to come out of this period physically. My activity level is down quite a bit from before; I no longer have those great long hikes on the weekend, and even my mid-day walks are shorter than what I would normally walk during my commuting days. On the flip side, I think I'm eating healthier throughout the day: no burritos or pizzas or fried chicken sandwiches, and instead lots of fresh fruits and veggies. But on the other flip side, I've redeveloped a sweet tooth and am eating more dessert throughout the day, too. But probably fewer salty snacks. So, I don't know! I'm probably going to lose some muscle, and I'm curious whether I'll gain fat, and how much if so.

And then there's my hair. I've kept up my shaving, and I did get a haircut maybe two weeks before SIP started, so I'm probably in a better position than a lot of people, but I'm definitely getting shaggy. On the other hand, I usually wait too long before getting a haircut anyways, so it doesn't look that unusual to people. If we do lift this order by May 3 I think I'll still be within the bounds of social acceptance; if it's much longer, I'll probably start considering doing something drastic.

As I mentioned before, in a lot of ways my life under the SIP order has been almost exactly like before: I read books, I play video games, I write long and rambling blog posts. I've definitely found myself craving more social interactions, though, and have treasured the connections I have. I typically call my parents about twice a month; lately I've been calling them every week, initially because I wanted to check in and make sure they were doing OK, but increasingly because it's nice to chat and we have so much to talk about. I've checked in with an elderly neighbor to make sure she's doing all right and to offer to go shopping for her. I reached out to a friend who canceled their baby's baek-il two weeks before SIP started, yet another thing that seemed like an overreaction at the time and now seems incredibly wise.

Reaching out and talking with people has been good. I've started doing other things that have not been as healthy and good, and have been trying to identify and curb those. Almost as soon as SIP started I began taking my laptop to bed with me so I could play games right before I fell asleep. That was terrible, one of the many things that sounds like it would be a fun distraction but ends up playing havoc with my physical and mental health, so I forced myself to stop after a few days. I've also tried to be much more conscious of how I consume media. In many ways this is a natural outgrowth from my obsession over our seemingly decades-long presidential race, which I had an obsessive focus on even before this started and a lot of that attention has just moved directly over to the politics of the coronavirus response. It's kind of tough: I feel like I'm in front of a keyboard for like 80-90% of each day, and even without thinking of it, when I'm between tasks I'll just mindlessly open a new tab to visit the Washington Post or Twitter or Google News or another site. From there I'll instantly see many outrageous stories, click into them, and get increasingly mad and despairing over what people are or aren't doing.

This habit has been much harder to break than bringing a laptop into bed, as it's been a longer time coming. I try to recognize when it's happening and just close the tab I opened and move on to something else productive, or at least something that won't expose me to the endless stream of daily news. I try to compensate with more limited and focused sources of information. There is a lot of important stuff happening and there is information that's useful for us to know, but there's only, like, one or two really important things that happen each day that directly affect our lives, and anything beyond that is mostly for entertainment or enraging purposes. My media routine currently looks something like the following:
  • In the morning I'll scan clips from the previous day's Colbert show, Last Week Tonight, or a similar palatable humorous news source.
  • Most weekdays at noon, Gavin Newsom will give a live address on the current response in California. Regular readers of this blog will know that I've had a long-standing dislike for Newsom, but I've been impressed by his leadership during this crisis and have come to find these updates genuinely reassuring. They're directly applicable to the state where I live, they are sober and recognize the gravity of the situation, and it's also incredibly encouraging to be reminded that we have a government able and willing to take action to help people. I don't watch these all straight through, but it's one thing I allow myself.
  • After work and before supper, I'll give myself up to 30 minutes for news and social media. This usually means a quick scroll through the top three screens or so of my Facebook feed, an update of my highly curated Twitter feed, and finally letting myself read the WaPo to see what big things happened today. I've also started checking in on Nextdoor at this time; I've had an account for a few years but I think have only logged in once or twice before now. There's nothing earth-shattering in there, but it's interesting to read about, like, what restaurants are still doing carry-out and local charity drives and similar things.
Weirdly, I'm trying to watch more movies and/or TV at night, partly to remove the unstructured time that drives me back to social media. I find that it's increasingly difficult for me to focus on watching something, though. That's another trend that's been happening for a while and seems to be accelerating now. I kind of instinctively want to pick up my phone or crack open my laptop as soon as the opening credits start showing. I have gotten through a few things, though, including my long-delayed first-ever viewing of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. More often, though, I'm finding video games to be my better recreation. I'm way better at focusing on them, and do enjoy the sense of progress and achievement they lend.

Other things that have been good for me? Podcasts, for one. I've been a regular listener for well over a decade now, and the conversational tone of lots of the comedy podcasts I enjoy has been particularly appreciated now. It's been cool to see how some long-running institutions have evolved, particularly comedy podcasts like Comedy Bang! Bang! and Hollywood Handbook that thrive on in-person interactions, which are now being recorded over Zoom from the hosts' and guests' private homes. I've particularly enjoyed seeing video clips from Hollywood Handbook and seeing how they're still incorporating producers and engineers, who are always present but rarely heard while recording in the studio, and see how their presence and enthusiasm helps guide new guests' experiences through this strange show in this strange time. And it's been wonderful to see new slice-of-life podcasts pop up, too. My favorite comedian and prolific podcaster Paul F. Tompkins started a wonderful new podcast with his wife Janie Haddad Tompkins, resulting in the terrific Stay F. Homekins. It's fun and relaxing and intriguing: we're catching up with the two of them catching up at the end of their day over a few glasses of wine. It's nice to feel included, to hear their experiences and small-scale joys and fears and wonders.

And music is great, too. One particular solace that I want to call out is Womb, the third album from Purity Ring, one of my favorite bands. This was such a wonderful, surprising gift. It's been five years since their last album, Another Eternity, came out, and probably at least three years since they last played a concert or even updated on social media. I'd kind of thought that they were gone for good, and it made me so happy to get an entire new album from them. It's a great album for this time, too. I love the darker and challenging tone of their debut Shrines, but the brighter and warmer sound of Another Eternity is great too, and Womb follows in that very welcome vein: upbeat, uplifting, complex but riddled with optimism. The album has been out for about a week now and I've listened to it countless times. It makes me happy, which is a precious feeling.

And we're all doing this. Each locked in our own homes, each reaching out, finding ways to connect to one another. Figuring out how to keep creating our art in this time, how to share that art, how to build our communities. It's a strange and sometimes scary time, but we're better equipped as a species to handle it than we've ever been in the past. I've never before felt so grateful for the Internet, for text messages and video chats, for digital music and mail-order coffee. I hope that once we get through this time we'll be able to find some things of value and bring them forward with us.

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