Life in a Time of Pandemic: What is Normal?

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Before I get started, the usual caveat.  This post will be talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.  If that’s not something you are interested in thinking or reading about at the moment, please leave with my blessing.  I want my readers to take care of their mental health first and foremost.

I’m based in the US, where vaccines are fairly plentiful, and demand is fairly high to get them.  Yes, there are pockets of people who are suspicious, scared, or confused, who are choosing not to get vaccinated, but most people I know are doing so.  My entire family (whoa are old enough) have gotten the vaccine.  I’ve had my two doses, survived the side effects, and am now considered fully protected.  I even have a positive antibody test thanks to a recent blood donation, so I can attest to that part of the vaccine I got actually working.

I’m looking forward to being able to spend time with friends and family who are also vaccinated.  I’m looking forward to feeling safe going to the grocery store or doing other errands.  I’m even looking forward to going back to working in a physical office even though it means having a commute time again.

What I’m not looking forward to is the uncertainty, and the urge to go back to “normal” when that wasn’t a very great way for things to be.  I take public transit to work, so going back to the office means getting back on a public bus.  I’m more worried about that than I am any other part of returning to work.  I take an express regional route, so it’s mostly other commuters like me, who I expect are the kind of people who got vaccinated as soon as humanely possible.  But there are also students and other community members on the bus.  I don’t know if all of the other people on the bus with me will be vaccinated, which means I need to assume they aren’t.  That means masks will remain an important thing for my commute.  While the science so far indicates that I’m at a very low risk of catching or spreading the virus since I’m vaccinated, that chance isn’t zero.

This likely means that my normal is going to look a bit different from before.  I’m going to be taking a later bus into the office and a later bus home.  I’ll be working slightly outside the normal 8am-5pm business hours of my university staff job.  I’ll be eating dinner at the office those days.  The good news is that my boss is willing to be flexible, and knows about my concerns with the public transit and that I can’t afford to park on campus.  Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to because sitting in the car aggravates my back issue more than sitting on the bus does.  (I’m not sure how much I’ve talked about this on the blog, but I have a chronic back issue that causes numbness, tingling, or pain in various places down my leg when a nerve is pinches between my vertebrae.  Sitting is one of the worst things I can do for it.)

So work isn’t going back to normal for me.  My boss is planning for us all to start having some amount of work from home time regularly.  Something like one day a week.  I think that part is going to be quite nice.  Having one day a week (hopefully a regular day that I could then move around if I wanted) when I can not have meetings scheduled, and not have to commute, and be able to focus in on my projects and my own work and focus less on everyone else.

Thinking through the return to the office, and what that means for the routines and good habits I’ve developed over the past year, has me asking, once again, what normal is.

Normal is what we’re used to.  It’s seen as “average,” and it’s seen as desirable by most people (at least for their definition of normal).

Normal is not standard across all people, all cultures, all races, all economic strata, or any number of other demographics or group designations.

Normal is a human construct.

Normal isn’t what’s right, or just, or desirable for everyone.

Normal is what feels routine, familiar, and in many cases comfortable.

Even with all of that, I’m not entirely sure what normal means.  I know what normal used to be for me.  I know what normal is for me now.  I don’t know what normal is going to look like in a few more weeks, months, or even years.

Everyone is talking about getting back to normal, but I don’t want to go back to the normal we had before.  I want wearing a mask outside your house when you are sick to become normal and stay normal.  I want staying home when you are sick (and being paid to do so to encourage that) to be normal.  I want the flexibility and understanding that physical and mental health come first to be normal.

Normal right now looks so different from someone with a front-line essential job that can’t be done remotely.  Normal meant a year of risk, and frustration, and fear.  Normal meant a year of having to try to enforce the local guidelines to keep everyone safe when customers, coworkers, your boss, or any number of others weren’t following the guidelines and were being unsafe.

Normal for me, meant not going outside much, not seeing friends in person, spending a lot of time on Zoom calls for work and for socializing and fun.  Normal meant spending a lot more than 40 hours a week at my desk at home looking at computer screens.  Only 40 hours of it was work, but a lot of my outside of work things also happen on my computer, so there has been a lot of time at my desk, and I’ve had to work very hard to make mental distinctions between work time and not work time.

When restrictions about movement and travel have been lifted, and we figure out what normal looks like again, I hope it comes with clear lines between work and the rest of my time.  I hope I’ll continue to see my friends regularly.  I hope I’ll be able to find new ways to revive old things that I miss but can’t have back in quite the same way as they were before.

So much has changed internally for me over the past year, that I don’t want to go back to the exact same external reality we left when restrictions started in March 2020.  I want my society and culture to have learned from all this.  I want things to be better.

While I might only be able to control a very small amount of what my new normal looks like.  If I do everything I can to make it what I’m hoping for, then maybe I can get close.

Life in a Time of Pandemic: Lost in Time and Space

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(As usual, if you aren’t in a space to want to engage with talk of the current pandemic, please skip this post with my blessing.  Take care of yourself.  Though this one is a little less pandemic heavy than the others.)

There’s this joke I have with my partner about how easily I get lost in time and space.  It has roots in some actual issues with getting lost (especially in space) and losing track of where I am (especially in time).  But it’s also partially a joke, because I’m less likely to get lost in time than he is, and when a car isn’t involved, I rarely get lost in space either.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, largely because my potential to be lost has been very different over the past year than it has been at any point prior.  I just wanted to share some thoughts and reflections on being lost in time and space and what that means to me right now.

The Problem with Cars

When we were in college, I didn’t have a car, but my then boyfriend (now husband) did, so I got a parking permit for his car since I was a year ahead and got priority for a permit.  This meant that we could do things like grocery runs or going to an off-campus doctor with less hassle.  I knew (even then) than I had a tendency to get lost while driving.  (For reference, this was in the early years of Map Quest and before ubiquitous GPS and smart phones.)  I had a doctor’s appointment the next day, so I printed off some directions, and went to find the office so I wouldn’t get lost.

I got lost.

In my defense, it involved several one-way roads, missing one turn, and being unable to figure out how to get back on my route.  This particular incident ended in me pulling into some parking lot crying, calling my boyfriend and his roommate bringing him out so he could drive me home.  This was not the last time this happened while we were in college.

To avoid a repeat of the issue, my boyfriend drove me to the appointment the next day.  Partially due to my inability to navigate without a GPS and partially because he gets motion sick very easily, my partner does almost all the driving when we’re together, even now.

If I have a human to navigate, a GPS to talk to me, or I’m the one in the passenger seat giving directions, everything is fine.  But put me in a car without audible directions and I just can’t seem to functionally follow the directions to where I’m going and focus on driving at the same time.  Put me on my feet with a map, and I can get to and from almost anywhere (that I can find on the map).  It’s just something about the added stress of driving (which is arguably the most dangerous thing I do on any given day) that completely robs me of my sense of direction.  (Not that my ability to recognize right from left is particularly good at any time.)

The Problem with Human Perception of Time

So, the human brain is really good at lying to itself.  Your eyes are even in on this.  There’s a blind spot within our field of vision that our brains just fill in for us.  Our eyes do this weird movement thing during which we do not see and then it lies to us about the passage of time to cover up the moment of blindness.  Humans are actually incredibly bad at measuring the passage of time without something mechanical or electronic counting it for us.

So, we’re all starting out with a deficit when it comes to not getting lost in time.  I then have the compounding problem of focusing in.  While it’s not generally debilitating for me personally (I have a lot of strategies to keep it from affecting my life negatively) this is actually one of the symptoms of attentive type ADD.  I focus in on something to the detriment of everything else.  As a child, this manifested in interesting ways, like running into walls when my focus was directed somewhere other than where I was going, or being so focused on the TV (even if it was just a commercial!) that you had to touch me to get my attention to move elsewhere.  In adult life it looks more like spending hours on a task without realizing it and forgetting to take a stretch break or eat, or just being unaware of time passing so that I’ll miss a meeting if I don’t set a timer or alarm to pull me out of my work.

What is Time?

This is a phrase my friends and I toss around occasionally in the current pandemic moment to express how the passage of time and all the usual markers for it are a little off right now.  For a variety of reasons life is a little weird right now (I’m not going to get into the state of the world with this point, but it’s April 2021 for future reference).  I’m currently working from home instead of commuting to my office, which is the big thing that’s messing with my ability to situate myself in time right now.

Since I’m very rarely leaving the house these days due to pandemic restrictions, it’s pretty hard for me to be lost in space right now.  Something else would have to be going on for me to get lost in someplace with only six rooms and only two places where there are options for branching directions.

Time is a completely different matter.

Working from home limits my movements.  I have a back issue, and the best accommodation to keep it from being painful or getting any worse is having a standing desk.  I’d made do with jury-rigged solutions prior to the pandemic, but when I was suddenly spending 40 hours at my desk at home, it was worth spending the money to get a proper standing desk.  That means I spend almost all of my time at my desk.  It’s where I work for 40 hours a week.  It’s where I write in the mornings, evenings, and on weekends.  It’s where you set up craft projects that will fit on the desk surface.

For a while I was even eating my lunch at my desk, like I used to at work, but I’ve had to stop doing that.  There was no mental separation from working if I wasn’t physically leaving my desk during my lunch break.  The switch from my desktop to my laptop computer (the strategy I used back at the office) just wasn’t working well enough.  I’m much more productive in the afternoons when I eat out in the living room hanging out with my partner and the cats for my lunch break.

The problem this feeds into is sameness.  Every day looks almost exactly the same.  Yes, there’s some variation on weekends, but even those are often spent mostly at my desk.  There isn’t physical movement to demarcate different days.  I’m not having a meeting in someone’s office with them, or walking across campus for an every-other-week meeting with another unit.  I’m at my desk, on my computer or Zoom for everything.  The days run together.  There isn’t enough about any given one to help my brain distinguish between them.  This monotony leads to not noticing the passage of time.  It doesn’t feel like we’ve been in pandemic conditions for over a year now.

Counterintuitively, I’m also having the opposite problem.  It feels like it’s been forever since November, since last year, since things were what I used to think of as normal.  I’ll think about the last time I saw my family, or a friend, or when we got our new cats, and it will seem like all that happened just a few weeks ago or several years ago (depending on the moment) but it’s been about a year (slightly more in the case of the cats).

Part of this is probably a defense mechanism to protect me from the stress that has been underlying for several years now.  Part of this is the subjective nature of my perception of time.  Part of this is completely normal and nothing new.  I’ve always been bad at noting the passage of time.  When someone asks how long my partner and I have been together 95% of the time, I have to consult him for the math or count on my fingers from the year we started dating or got married.  The only reason I can easily tell you how long I’ve been at my current job is because I started in 2015, so I know it’s on a five year, so 2020 was five and 2025 will be ten.

Does It Matter?

That is the question in the end.  Does it matter that I’m losing track of time?  That I have to rely on GPS apps on my phone to get almost anywhere in my car?  Is it a problem that my days blend together and I’m not noticing the time slipping away?

Yes and no.

In many ways, the monotony and sameness of my days right now is an incredible luxury.  I am insanely lucky that I haven’t had to risk exposure, no one in my household or extended family has gotten the virus, and none of my close friends have either.  The days that stick out the most in my mind are the ones when I was worrying about a friend who had an exposure risk, or when I had to go out into the world for a doctor’s appointment or some other something that I couldn’t do from home.  There have been no personal, close to my heart disasters in my world over the last year.  And I am incredibly grateful for that.

I’m not complaining about the sameness, or even my inability to not get lost in a car without help.  I’ve just been thinking about time and space and where I find myself in it (whether I know where I am or not) quite a lot lately.  I’ve been thinking about how different the world is right now, and how we’re all coping with the strangeness that has become normal and the normal that has become strange.

As a way to wrap up that thinking, I wanted to list a few things I’ve been grateful for that have come out of the strange normality we find ourselves in right now.  These are in no particular order.

  • Having a regular wake up and go to bedtime every single day has vastly improved the quality of my sleep.
  • I’ve spent more time on craft projects in the last year than in previous years.
  • I’ve picked up new hobbies.
  • I’ve found new and different ways to connect regularly with friends and family.
  • I’ve gotten to spend my days at home, where I can pet my cats and hug my partner on mini breaks from work.
  • I have a real standing desk at home now.
  • I am healthy and safe and soon to be vaccinated.

I hope all of you are able to find some things to be grateful for in these strange and uncertain times.

Life in a Time of Pandemic: One Year Anniversary

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As with all posts that start with “Life in a Time of Pandemic,” this is going to be talking about my life, thoughts, and reflections on the current pandemic conditions and crisis, so if you aren’t in a space to want to read that, please leave with my blessing.  I don’t want these posts to be a stress on anyone else.

Writing and reflection go hand and hand for me, so as we have recently crossed the one-year mark with pandemic conditions, I wanted to take some time to think about where I’ve been and what the past year has been like.

It varied quite a bit when pandemic conditions started.  For my little corner of the world (North Carolina, USA) and specifically for the university I work for, pandemic conditions started in mid-March 2020.  We were all instructed to work from home if we could, spring break was extended for a week so faculty could redesign the second half of their courses to be delivered remotely, and masks and social distancing began to be encouraged and then mandated.

It’s now the end of March 2021.  So for more than a year, I’ve been wearing a mask whenever I’m out of my apartment and within six feet of other humans.  If I was going for a walk outside, I’d always bring a mask, but I usually didn’t put it on unless I was passing someone within six feet.  This should, in theory, mean that I’m at low risk of passing the virus to anyone or getting it passed to me.  Or so say those with epidemiology and fluid dynamics experience.  (For the purposes of physics, air is a fluid, if you weren’t aware.)

This meant a lot of changes in my life.  No more Sunday afternoons at my favorite café with my writing friends.  No more evenings at a friend’s place for D&D.  No more visits to family without serious planning for before and after.

Thankfully, there were a lot of online tools available for me to make adaptations to my usual routines.  My Sunday afternoon write-in moved from a café to my NaNo region’s discord server.  Roll20.net gave our D&D group an online space to play.  My work access to a paid Zoom account gave me the ability to host a weekly meet up of friends to replace the once-every-couple-months party another friend used to host.  For a lot of things, this works alright.  I’m still able to see and laugh with my friends on Friday nights.  I’m still able to get my Sunday writing in with those who join me on discord.  I’ve recently started having an hour long Zoom call with my parents every Wednesday.

For some things, not so much.  I was able to enjoy playing in and running some sessions of our D&D pseudo-campaign over the course of April through September.  Most of the group does NaNoWriMo, so we took a hiatus for October through December.  We started back up in January, and I realized that I could DM with about the same level of enjoyment, but that I struggled more to engage as a player.  I’m currently on a semi-hiatus from the group so that I don’t ruin anyone else’s fun.

Similarly, the online write-in doesn’t work for everyone.  A few of my favorite regulars from the in-person meet up don’t get the same things out of an online meet up, so they haven’t been coming and I miss them.  I totally get that it doesn’t work for everyone though.  I just hope we can get back to in person eventually and I can see them regularly again.  As an added future sadness, the café we used to meet at was one of three locations of a local café chain, and they’ve (possibly permanently) closed the two secondary locations, one of which was ours, so even when all this is over, we likely can’t go back to our favorite spot.

Seeing family became a logistical nightmare.  Things didn’t seem too bad for travel that summer, so after everyone quarantined at home for two weeks, my husband and I traveled to his parent’s house to spend a little over a week relaxing and hanging out with his family.  His sister was already there (as emergency help for training two poodle puppies) and her husband joined us a few days later.  It was really great to see family, especially since we hadn’t seen sister- and brother-in-law since the previous summer.  It was a chance to decompress and not worry about work and have a little time with the people we cared about.  Husband and I also quarantined for two weeks after that just to make sure if we picked something up in transit we didn’t spread it any further.  We’re all lucky and no one in the family has had any exposure due to that trip or since.

By the time the winter holidays came around, cases were on the rise and all the Thanksgiving travel spreading was becoming obvious, so we decided not to travel for the holidays.  We leveraged online tools again.  We spent a couple hours on Zoom calls with my mother’s side of the family on Christmas Eve, with my parents, sister, and niece the morning of Christmas, and with my husband’s family for nearly four hours later that day.  It was a reasonably good solution.  I’ve never seen that many of my relatives in so short a time before.  With an aunt in Washington state, an uncle in New York state, and the grandmother on that side in Florida, it’s rare to have that entire side of the family together all at once for any reason.  Similarly, my husband’s family is spread across North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, so we usually only get together once or twice a year.  It wasn’t the most ideal holiday option, but with the risk of picking something up in transit, it was the safest option we had.

All that said, I’m still doing pretty well meeting my social needs.  I have a few friends who started Twitch Streaming recently, so that’s one way that I get in a little social time.  I’m also a member of several discord servers, some for in-real-life acquaintances and some for online-only communities.  These have given me a place to chat and talk and interact with others when I need it.  Between that, my weekly Friday Zoom with friends, Zoom meetings at work, and actually living with another human, I’m doing alright.  I don’t want this to be forever, but I can probably last another year without any significant issues with my ability to meet my social needs.

The pandemic has also led to some routine changes that have been beneficial.  I’ve realized having a consistent bedtime and wake up time all seven days of the week does amazing things for my quality of sleep and my general wellbeing.  So the habit of setting my work wake up alarm for every single day regardless of whether I’m working is going to follow me forever.  I sleep so much better, I get to sleep faster, and I wake up more reliably on-time.  It’s pretty amazing.  It also means my weekend days feel longer.  I’m not sleeping until noon and going to bed at midnight.  I’m waking up before six and going to bed around ten.  That’s consistently four additional hours of awake time, which means four more hours to read, game, craft, or get stuff done.  It’s been really great.

Being stuck at home with very few outside dining or entertainment expenses has also meant saving a bit of money in pandemic conditions.  We’re being more thoughtful and frugal with our grocery purchases as well.  Between that and consolidating out debt at the end of 2020 it’s put us in a better financial position going into 2021 than we’ve been in for five or ten years.  It feels really great, and with any luck that trend will continue past the end of the pandemic too.

I feel incredibly lucky that I’m doing so well in pandemic conditions.  I know the isolation can be depressing for many, the stress of working remotely grates on others, and the overall stress about the world as a whole can be downright oppressive.  I’m able to insolate myself from a lot of this and rely on my partner to filter the general news and world happenings into times and places when I can deal with it, and I don’t find the isolation of working from home and social distances as stressful or depressing as some do.

As we sit here at the one-year mark with vaccines on the market and plans for distributing them as quickly as can be managed, I’m hopeful.  I know the distribution plans aren’t necessarily going as well as planned everywhere and different places are doing better or worse than others, but the vaccines exist, and they are getting to people.  My state is actually doing pretty well.  They keep opening the next phase early because they’re filling appointments and getting vaccines out fast.  It means that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  There will be a time after, and we’ll be able to redefine what normal is (because it’s not going to ever be quite like it was before), and we’ll be able to move forward again.

But for now, we just have to keep going and keep our spirits up as we wait in the interminable time between before and after.  I hope that we can use the time to improve and to be better and to think about ways that the After Times can be better than the Before Times.  Being able to redefine what normal means is an opportunity to make normal better for everyone.

Life in a Time of Pandemic: The First Few Weeks

Grilled cheese on homemade bread.
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If you’ve heard more than enough about the COVID-19 novel coronavirus and need a break, please stop here and go find something else to enjoy.  I know that hearing too much about it all can get overwhelming, and I’m not in the least offended if people need to take that break.  If you see a similarly titled post in the future, you can feel welcome to not even click through, because it will also be a virus related post and I want all my readers to take care of themselves mentally and physically during this crisis.

That said, one of my personal coping mechanisms is to write.  Whether that’s a fictional version of myself getting out of a crap situation, a happy story to make me feel better, or working out my thoughts “on paper.”  Writing is how I manage a lot of things in my life, from planning to my emotional and mental wellbeing.  So today, I wanted to share a little of the writing I’ve been doing to think through and process the situation we all find ourselves in. Continue reading