That said, today does feel like as good a day as any for this post. Today marks the two-week anniversary of my second Pfizer vaccine, and thus the day that I am fully vaccinated. Hooray!
One thing that has kind of surprised me, but probably shouldn't have, has been how quickly things have opened back up. In lots of ways the end of the pandemic feels eerily similar to the start. I still vividly remember the weeks in late February and early March 2020, when we in the Bay Area were first starting to seriously contemplate what might be coming. I was shocked when Santa Clara banned events of over 5000 people, shutting down professional sports in the county. Mere days later, gatherings of over 50 people were banned. Companies that could work from home started ordering their employees out of the offices, and a few days later we were told to not congregate with anyone we didn't live with.
And now, in May 2021, we got updated CDC guidance stating that fully vaccinated people can safely gather indoors with in small groups without masks, but must continue to mask in almost all other situations. And, just a week or two later, we're told that fully vaccinated people can do pretty much anything, with only a handful of lingering exceptions like flying on airplanes or attending large conferences. (Though the state of California is still holding to its original reopening date of June 15, at least for now.)
In my mind, I was imagining a much more gradual transition and longer timelines. I tend to think that things can be destroyed much faster than they are created: you can tear apart a building or a piece of electronics much more quickly than you can put it back together. I thought of the pandemic and the lockdown as a kind of destruction of our way of life, and what we're entering into now as a phase of healing and rebuilding. That might not be the best way to think of it, though. On a practical level, people are very eager to do the things they miss doing, and it's really hard to tell someone "This thing will be safe, but you need to wait until June to do it."
Another odd bit of mirroring is my ground-level experience with and observation of mask-wearing. In the early days of the pandemic, we were pointedly and repeatedly told not to wear masks: they were only for healthcare workers, and all we had to concern ourselves with was hand-washing and social distancing. I read some sources that were trustworthy and informed but not official, the one I remember most being Nicola Griffith's blog, which were ahead of the curve in offering advice. "Of course you should wear a mask!", they said. "This is a respiratory illness. It would be crazy if it didn't spread through the air!" Personally, I decided early on to be guided by the officials: CDC, county health, California regulations. I'm not a scientist, and don't have the time or mental fortitude to sift through all the data out there, so rather than drive myself crazy about what I should or shouldn't be doing I'd just follow the official guidelines.
Which all sounds well and good, but of course the guidelines kept changing. Which isn't bad! Guidelines are based on science, and science is an ever-evolving consensus rather than a monolithic religion. Still, even though I could draw comfort in knowing that I was following the right process, it was disconcerting to realize that I hadn't always been doing the right thing.
For masks, there was a gradual shift over time as they were forbidden, then accepted "if you are vulnerable and feel like you require one", then encouraged, and finally mandated. Here in the Bay Area, compliance seemed to move pretty much at the same speed as the official guidance, and from one week to the next or even day to day you could see drastic changes in peoples' appearances and behavior.
For the record, I really hated wearing a mask. I did it, and felt better about it over time, but it was probably the single most defeating, soul-sapping aspect of the pandemic for me.
There was a period of time in early 2020 where the state and counties closed down parks and beaches. Knowing what we know now, that seems kind of insane: outdoors activities are vastly safer than indoor ones. Even once they reopened, though, I continued to squat at home, going on some small neighborhood walks but not venturing out to any of my favorite local parks.
I finally broke my hiking fast in... hm, it might have been Memorial Day. I had gone for over ten weeks without hiking, the longest stretch by a long shot since 2003. I went to my normal spot, which includes a nice, broad, paved trail that climbs steeply uphill. It's wide enough that you can maintain six feet of distance while passing someone, which made me feel better about being out and around other people.
But, I wondered, should I be wearing a mask or not? Based on the guidelines at the time, you were supposed to mask up if you couldn't maintain six feet of distance, so technically I was fine; but I would be within that "danger zone" if folks weren't walking single-file or sticking to their side of the path. At first I would carry my mask with me, and mask up if it looked like people I was passing weren't maintaining that horizontal distance or if they were masked up. As the months went on, I got kind of tired of the off-and-on dance, and would typically just keep it on for long stretches, only taking it off very early in the morning or far up the ridge where I could walk for an hour without seeing other people.
All that said, I feel like I'm now going through the opposite process, from getting used to wearing a mask to getting used to not wearing a mask, and once again looking to others for social cues on what I should be doing. Now I default to keeping my mask off, but I still have it with me, and will pull it up if someone else happens to be wearing theirs.
There's been a huge shift in just the last two weeks, though. In just that time I'd say the trail has gone from roughly 80% masked hikers to 20% masked. It feels so nice to be able to smile at people again and see their smiles in return! I've been hiking this trail for so long that I've come to recognize a lot of people, and it's felt kind of emotional to actually see them again. We typically just nod or wave to each other, but last weekend an older woman said "It's so good to see you again!" and I immediately replied "I know, it's good to see your face!" And, it's also great to recognize that we've all been in this together: we've all been keeping careful, doing the right things, and now we can finally relax, thanks to the actions of one another.
I do feel incredibly relieved to be vaccinated, and feel a sense of awe at all the intelligence and hard work that went into creating the vaccines and distributing them to so many people. I've also been fascinated at the sociology and psychology around vaccinations, from when they were first announced through our current moment (in the US) of abundance. Lots of folks in my social circle seemed to have a sense of FOMO and went to great lengths to try and get vaccinated ASAP: Nobody fibbed about their age or health conditions, but they would spend hours refreshing web sites and hunting through Facebook groups and visiting pharmacies and doing whatever ethical things they could do to acquire a surplus dose. I felt eager, but not quite to that level: I reasoned that (1) I'm very far from the front lines, have very few in-person social interactions, no preexisting conditions, and thus was a few low-risk target for COVID; (2) There really weren't going to be major differences between what I could do as an early-vaccinated vs. late-vaccinated person; and most importantly (3) I'd much rather play video games or read books than navigate frustrating, broken systems to try and snag a shot.
California announced in late March that vaccines would be available to everyone 16+ starting on Thursday April 15, and officially stuck with that date, though there was a considerable loosening at individual sites as the date grew closer. Once the bookings opened up on April 14 I was able to get a slot for April 17, not bad at all! I'd been prepared to drive further inland or visit a random pharmacy or something, but I ended up being able to get one directly from my primary healthcare provider; the location closest to me was unavailable, but one 25 minutes away had slots, so I gladly booked that.
My personal experiences with the shot have been very positive. After the first dose I had some soreness in my arm for a couple of days, and that was it. With the second shot, I didn't even feel it go in, thanks to my awesome nurse. I didn't feel any soreness with that one, but did have a slight headache and a tinge of nausea for the next two days. I felt fine on the third day, then a little sick again on the fourth day, and have been fine again from the fifth day onward.
As many others have noted, while COVID has been a terrible plague on our civilization, it's actually resulted in a lot of us feeling much healthier than ever before. In the last 16 months I haven't gotten a single cold or flu. One interesting thing to think about is what things from the last year we'll take forward from us: tools, attitudes, habits, and other stuff. I suspect that one big thing a lot of people will do is maintain diligence about hand-washing, which is a little funny because coming out of the pandemic we now know that washing hands does basically nothing to stop COVID. But it's a habit that I and many other people have focused on, and I think there's a good chance that everyone who lived through this pandemic will wash their hands more frequently and thoroughly than those who didn't. I'll probably carry a mask with me throughout the cold season, and slip it on whenever I'm in a subway where someone is having a fit of coughing and sneezing, instead of just rolling my eyes and doing my best to ignore it like I used to.
Long-term, I suspect that people will return to live theater and sports games and indoor dining and all the other activities that have been curtailed. It does seem likely that food delivery services and online shopping will remain high: those industries were already growing before the pandemic and really exploded during it, and lots of people will probably continue using them.
I can already tell that, at least in the short term, we'll have a greater appreciation for gathering with other people: just hanging out feels way more special and meaningful than it did pre-pandemic. Likewise, I imagine that students will feel much more emotional about physically going to school and seeing their friends, after spending a year isolated at home.
But, who knows! I was definitely wrong about how bad COVID would end up being, and I could very well be wrong about the aftereffects as well.
One last thing I wanted to document was what I've been thinking of as my "COVID accomplishments": all of my home improvement projects during lockdown, most of which I probably wouldn't have done otherwise. These accomplishments were not evenly distributed throughout the crisis. For the first couple of weeks I was kind of in shock, thinking too much but not doing much. I pepped up a bit heading into summer and became really productive, feeling great about all the stuff I was knocking out. I started to feel a bit weary heading into the fall, and then pretty defeated as cases skyrocketed after Thanksgiving and shelter-in-place was reinstated. I hit my low point around the time of the coup attempt, and have been gradually rebounding since then, much less productive in my personal projects but much more in tune with the world and looking forward to reclaiming my place in it.
Anyways, here we go!
- Fixed a loose chair leg in a stuffed chair.
- Changed two burned-out lightbulbs in my (extremely high!) ceiling lights. This required precariously balancing a ladder on top of my entertainment center.
- Fixed internet speed issues by getting a new router (my old one was from 2008!) and modem.
- Did a massive cable management job on my entertainment center, transforming a rat's nest of cords spilling out all over to a nicely hidden configuration.
- Rearranged my spare room: I moved my computer desk to another wall to avoid issues with glare, tossed out an old magazine rack, rehung a bunch of photos, cleared out closets, and just generally de-cluttered it.
- Shielded some exposed electrical wiring under my kitchen cabinet. That's been on my to-do list for over a decade!
- The Fridge Saga. I did a bunch of troubleshooting of a cooling issue, and eventually had to replace it, which ended up requiring some minor carpentry to extract it from its too-tight confines. The new one works great!
- Repainted a bunch of walls.
- Still in progress, but I'm replacing a baseboard.