COVID-19

Our COVID-19 scare

Margaret came home from work the Friday before last with news: one of the people on her team was COVID-positive. Worse, before the young woman got tested she worked several days not feeling well without telling anyone. Worse still, Margaret was feeling run down and achy.

We immediately quarantined Margaret to our bedroom and she called off work. I gathered toiletries and commandeered the downstairs bathroom, and figured out the sleeper sofa in the family room.

Margaret got tested Monday morning, by which time she was running a low-grade fever. I felt sure she was positive. Margaret wasn’t as certain. “This could just be a cold or the flu,” she said.

She was right. Thursday she got her test results: negative. But by Wednesday night she figured that would be the result, as she had been feeling better and better all day. By Thursday morning she felt mostly normal.

I’ve been worried about the two kids who still live with us, who want so much to hang out with their friends as they used to. I’ve feared that they would bring the virus into our home. We keep having to remind them to stay out of their friends’ homes, out of restaurants, out of any place where people aren’t wearing masks.

It’s been easy to forget that our biggest risk factor is Margaret’s workplace. She works in retail facility management, a job that must be done on site. Her staff is mostly in their 20s and 30s, and they live up to the news reports that this age group puts themselves at risk of the virus more than any other. The young woman who tested positive has a second job in a restaurant and freely hangs out with her friends, both strong risk factors.

Last week another young woman on Margaret’s staff tested positive. She may have become infected in the workplace. Now that Margaret is back to work, she’ll have to work long hours six days a week to cover the short staff.

Look at today’s new-case graph from the Indiana State Department of Health. We had 6,825 newly reported cases yesterday. I’m trying not to overreact to the spike.

ZOMG IT’S OUT OF CONTROL!!!!!1! Except that Indiana has 6,732,219 residents (U.S. Census Bureau estimate). Yesterday’s new cases affected one tenth of one percent of all Hoosiers. 251,597 Hoosiers have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 — 3.7 percent of us.

Further, let’s say that 5,000 Hoosiers tested positive over each of the last 14 days, and that they’re all still contagious. (When you look at the actual new cases per day since Nov. 1, 5,000 per day is a reasonable working number.) That’s 70,000 people, one percent of all Hoosiers, who could infect you.

Meijer sign

Let’s say every Hoosier who has or ever had COVID-19 are uniformly distributed across the state. Let’s also say that 1,000 random people in my county are currently shopping at the Meijer (big-box store) near my home, and I’m one of them.

37 of them have had had COVID-19 at some point. 10 of them currently have the virus. But in reality, many of those 10 are home in bed.

A young, healthy woman on my team at work got it and was laid up for two solid weeks. She said that just getting up to use the bathroom exhausted her for hours. I’ve heard of cases that went more easily, and cases that were much harder. But it sounds like few people get through this illness without some need to rest and recover, which means not shopping at Meijer or doing other things in the world.

I’m unlikely to get sick at Meijer, especially if everybody’s masked and I don’t linger.

I’m writing this to walk myself through it as much as to share it with you. This is still an illness I wish my whole family to avoid. We will continue to avoid places where people we don’t currently live with are unmasked. It’s prudent to do so. Here’s hoping a good vaccine comes soon. But there’s no need to freak out, not yet.

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COVID-19

Winter’s a comin’

In the spring, I thought that lockdown might flatten the pandemic curve (remember that phrase?) enough that life could return to normal in the summer. I was willing, eager even, to press pause on seeing family and especially friends — to just stay home — for the greater good. But now it’s clear that we’re in this for months longer yet, easily through the winter and possibly even longer.

I’m mighty introverted and love spending time alone, but even I need some human contact. I feel it deeply — I’m not getting enough, even though I live with my wife and some of our children and thus have company whenever I want it. To be whole and healthy, I need to see family that doesn’t live here, and I need to see my friends. Videoconferencing hasn’t been a good enough substitute.

Obviously, risk of COVID increases the more you interact with people outside your household. My wife and I have read a number of articles about it, articles that were as agenda-free as we could find. The consensus is that when you spend time with people outside your household, the lowest-risk way to do it is outside, where whatever people around you breathe out dissipates into the air. Distancing of at least six feet, or masks when that’s not possible, further reduces the risk.

Indiana businesses are open again with a few restrictions (though in at least one county bars remain closed). This appears to have signaled a return to normal for many Hoosiers. I see people spending time in each others’ homes, riding in each others’ cars, and having meals inside restaurants. It saddens me to see it, as this behavior only spreads the virus.

My wife and I are still playing it conservatively — from our observation, much more conservatively than most. But we have loosened up some. Isolation has been hard on us and has contributed to our low moods. Right now, we do see our friends and extended family outside. We are beginning to travel together in limited fashion to places where we spend most of our time outside. We choose to take on what we believe is a small amount of COVID risk to get the mental health benefits of human interaction and being in the world.

We’re getting as much of it in now as we can, because this window will close when winter weather arrives. Indiana winters are cold and snowy, sharply limiting outdoor activity. I never look forward to winter, but I dread this coming winter more than any other in my life because it will mean intense isolation.

We’ve had occasional picnics in a Zionsville park and invited children, siblings, and parents who live in central Indiana. We’re having another on Sunday. We’ve taken dinner to my mom’s a couple times, and eaten it with her on her patio. A couple weeks ago my team at work had a socially distanced picnic together. And I’m starting to see friends a little, always outside, with reasonable distancing. On Tuesday I saw my brother and a mutual colleague for the first time since February. We met at a restaurant with a great whiskey selection, and sipped a couple bourbons on the patio while we caught up. It was wonderful.

Yesterday I took the afternoon off and drove to southern Indiana to meet my younger son, Garrett, at a state park. His mom moved way out into the country with her husband after he retired, and that’s where Garrett lives when he’s not away at college. The state park is about 20 minutes from his home. I don’t remember exactly the last time I saw Garrett, but it was before the pandemic and might have been a long ago as January. I’ve not gone this long without seeing him since he was born. We went for a long hike, and talked. It slaked a deep thirst.

My wife and I have also booked an Airbnb apartment in downtown Louisville for an upcoming weekend. Since we married, we’ve made a point of taking a long weekend away every three months. With all the hard stuff we’ve lived through, these trips help us remember that we love each other and enjoy each other’s company very much. Our last trip was in January. We need to get away. We chose an Airbnb apartment rather than a hotel because we think there’s some risk advantage to a single unit over a room in a large building. We were also able to learn about the owner’s cleaning practices in detail, and they satisfy us. While there, we hope to walk through downtown Louisville photographing its architecture and enjoying meals outside at restaurants. But if it rains all weekend we will buy groceries, make our own meals, and watch Netflix together. If this weekend trip is like all the others we’ve taken, we’ll return renewed in our relationship.

One of our sons moved out a few weeks ago. It brought us no joy as he’s on an unsustainable life path that will go badly for him. It’s been deeply stressful for all of us who live here. He is also estranged from the mother of his child. After he moved out we reached out to the mother, who has since been generous in bringing our granddaughter for visits. We were thrilled when the mother offered to make the visits to be regular, weekly if we can swing it, to build strong bonds.

Already bad weather has backed us into a corner, and we’ve allowed them into our home. We have reasonable assurance that the mother is managing pandemic risk as well as she can, and she has the same reasonable assurance from us. But in the end you never can really know and every person you add to your bubble only increases your risk. And again, winter is coming; the cold and snow will sharply limit our ability to see our granddaughter outside. We’ve judged that the better thing is for us to have time with our granddaughter, so we invite her and her mother in. We hope we’re right.

Holliday Road Bridge

Finally, I’m getting outside for walks and bike rides as much as I can. It’s a solitary activity and so I’m at no COVID risk. But the exercise is good for my body, mind, and spirit in these hard times. I figure I have about six more weeks on the bike before temperatures are too chilly for me to ride without special gear — it’s amazing how cold your hands, ears, and face get on the bike below about 60 degrees. I don’t enjoy wearing cold-weather gear on the bike, but this year it will be worth me investing in some so I can ride for as long as I can.

Walking will be easy enough and not unpleasant until the temps drop below zero Fahrenheit. Then I’ll break out my heaviest coat, a Korean War-era wool-lined Army trench that has blocked every cold I’ve thrown at it for the 35 years I’ve owned it. But walk I will, all winter. I’m making that commitment now. It will help me get through the long, lonely winter.

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COVID-19

I know exactly what I’m doing but I don’t know whether it’s right or wrong

Margaret’s father turns 89 in a couple weeks. Since his wife died last August, not only has he grieved deeply, but he has declined dramatically, both physically and cognitively.

Margaret feels sure he’s in his last year. I think most of her seven brothers and sisters feel the same way, because they’re starting to travel here to visit as often as they can. We’ve made the decision to see Margaret’s brothers and sisters and their children (all adults) when they come.

We know this exposes us to risk. We also know that some of Margaret’s siblings and their children have different beliefs from us about how serious the virus is, and are taking fewer precautions than us.

We insist on one key restriction: that we see each other only outside, maintaining distance from each other. Based on articles I’m reading (like this one), the greatest risk of contracting the virus happens when you spend time with a group of people inside. If someone in the room is contagious, you all are marinating in the virus. Being outside heavily reduces that risk because the air is much more likely to carry the virus away. But it doesn’t eliminate the risk.

We’re most concerned about increasing risk for Margaret’s dad given his age. More than half of Indiana’s COVID-19 deaths are in people 80 and over, despite that age group representing only about 10 percent of cases. I made these screen shots from the Indiana State Department of Health COVID dashboard this morning, showing data collected from the beginning of the pandemic through yesterday.

We imagine that dying of COVID-19 would be extremely unplesant — and lonely, as it would require isolation. If I know anything about my father-in-law, it is that he would experience it as cruel and deeply emotionally painful to die without his children surrounding him.

Additionally, I think it would be far harder for Margaret and her brothers and sisters mentally and emotionally to go through this without seeing each other.

Still, I remain anxious. I’d strongly prefer to stay locked down, all five of us living here having no contact with people outside our home. I’d rather wait until there is effective treatment or a vaccine.

This is how Margaret and I are trying to balance both very real needs. I think nationwide, even worldwide, many families will have to make decisions just like this as our lives continue to naturally unfold during the pandemic.

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COVID-19

Confirmed: I’m staying the heck home

This graph bothers me.

It is the number of total reported cases of COVID-19 in Indiana since the beginning. That graph is not leveling out. It says that, on the whole, the virus is still spreading at a consistent rate.

If you’re curious, you can see this graph as part of a fascinating dashboard at the Indiana State Department of Health’s Web site here. It’s updated daily. This dashboard says that, by a hair, the most cases have been reported among people ages 50-59 – my age group. But more than half of the deaths are among people over 80.

I’ve said for a while now that I think Indiana is opening too soon. I recently read this article by a university immunologist. She restates in layman’s terms the studies and research done to date on the virus and its spread. The gist: your risk increases dramatically the longer you spend in a room where you are exposed to the virus. Meals in restaurants, church services, birthday parties — these are the places you’re most likely to get the virus. You tend to be in one room for these things and stay for a while. If you are near someone with the virus, you marinate in it. You are at comparatively low risk at the supermarket, believe it or not, because you keep moving. Your contact with any one infected person is short.

At my church, we’re considering reopening the first Sunday in June. That’s the first Sunday the county allows religious services to resume. As an elder, is my duty to tell the other elders that this is a terrible idea and we should wait. I hope they listen. If they don’t, they will open without me.

Other pandemic reports from sumacandmilkweed, fishfisharcade, Yuri Rasin, Gerald Greenwood, brandib.

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Essay

On safety and security

(originally posted 12/14/15) If you live in a first-world country, you are pretty safe from harm. If you live a middle-class or better lifestyle in a first-world country, you are overwhelmingly safe.

Of course, my neighbors on Nextdoor, an online bulletin-board system for neighborhoods, might not agree. They wring their hands all the time about crime and safety. They share the weekly police blotter and links to crime statistics and to a database of where all the sex offenders live. They recommend their security-alarm companies to each other, talk about starting neighborhood watches, and pester the city to increase police patrols and install more street lights. My Nextdoor feed crackles with fear.

It’s a matter of time, I’m sure, before one of my neighbors on Nextdoor links to this interactive tool on Slate which maps every reported shooting across the United States in the last year. Type your address and bingo. I find five shootings within a two-mile radius of my house. Cue the Nextdoor discussions about police patrols and alarm systems. Something must be done!!!!

Entry system

Perhaps I’ve not been concerned enough about crime. Half the time, my car is unlocked; it’s old and there’s nothing in there worth having anyway. I don’t lock my doors during the day when I’m at home. Heck, I first installed deadbolt locks on my doors only this year. I had painted the doors and installed new doorknobs and locks, and decided I might as well finally have deadbolts installed while I was at it.

Even worse, once or twice a year I manage to drive away from here for the day and leave my garage door up, providing easy access to the whole house. I’m such a doofus.

Yet every time I get home, nothing is disturbed. Actually, I’ve largely escaped crime my whole life. I had one close call as an adult, in the early ’90s. Wham! bam! rattle rattle rattle! on my front door, and then the back door, in the middle of the night. Woke me right up and scared the bejabbers out of me. But my locked doors deterred the would-be burglar. Or maybe it was a drunk trying to enter the wrong house. Either way, the police didn’t find him. It’s the only time I’ve ever needed police because of crime.

That’s not to say terrible things can’t happen. About five years before I moved in here, my next-door neighbor’s house was ransacked and burglarized while he was at work. And of the shootings the Slate tool found near my home, one of them made national news. Maybe you saw the stories on TV. It was the brutal murder in 2015 of a young mother, a pastor’s wife, in a home invasion. She was pregnant with their second child. It was truly, breathtakingly, stunningly awful.

Dangerous people do exist. It’s easy, natural even, to fear encountering one of them someday.

But let’s consider the real risk. I like to think of risk as the product of likelihood and impact — what’s the chance a bad thing will happen, and how bad will it be if it does?

The other four shootings within two miles of my home appear to have involved people who knew each other — domestic violence situations or fights between familiars at a bar. This is terrible stuff, no doubt. But if you’re in a reasonably healthy relationship and have reasonably stable friends, you’re extremely unlikely to find yourself shot in either of these ways. Even if a shooting of this nature happens next door to you, you are enormously unlikely to be injured by it. And home invasions are so rare that they always make the news, even in this, the 14th largest city in the United States. Same goes for the mass shootings and domestic terrorism incidents that happen nationwide: you are more likely to be crushed by a bookcase falling on you than to be shot by a terrorist. So said The Washington Post, with stats to back it up:

Consider, for instance, that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been no more likely to die at the hands of terrorists than being crushed to death by unstable televisions and furniture. Meanwhile, in the time it has taken you to read until this point, at least one American has died from a heart attack. Within the hour, a fellow citizen will have died from skin cancer. Roughly five minutes after that, a military veteran will commit suicide. And by the time you turn the lights off to sleep this evening, somewhere around 100 Americans will have died throughout the day in vehicular accidents – the equivalent of “a plane full of people crashing, killing everyone on board, every single day.”

But obviously, the impact of being shot, whether through terrorism or crime, is enormously high. The impact of having your house broken into while you’re away is fairly high. The impact of having, say, your lawn mower stolen from your front yard is frankly fairly low. It’s irritating and costly to the tune of a few hundred dollars, and you’re not likely to forget it. But if you’re in at least the middle class, you’ll recover pretty quickly.

And so you can and should do reasonable things to protect yourself. I was well overdue to have those deadbolts installed. And I should always leave my car locked to deter casual thieves — it’s easy to hit the lock button on my keyfob as I walk away.

Yet I have no plans to install an alarm system. I had one once, during my first marriage, that my wife had installed over my objections. (I had that kind of marriage.) I didn’t like having it armed when I was inside because I had to temporarily disarm it just to step out to get the mail. I usually forgot to arm it when I left. Once, I came home to find it armed, could not remember the code, and got a visit from the sheriff, angry at the waste of his time. I hated the constant weight of managing the alarm, when the events it protected me against were highly unlikely anyway.

I could buy a handgun, maybe even get a concealed-carry permit. Someone breaking in wouldn’t have a chance! Except that I know myself: I’d strap that gun on every day for a while, but soon I wouldn’t like how it made me think about an enormously unlikely event every day. So the gun would lie in a drawer in my bedroom. Then on the day an assailant did bust in through the patio door, I’d be just as screwed as if I didn’t have the gun.

You may choose differently on the alarm system and the firearm. Please do; I have no judgment to offer you. And I hope you don’t judge my desire not to think all the time about something awful but enormously unlikely, not to expend anything more than easy energy protecting against it. I want to live a life as carefree and relaxed as I can, and be free of needless anxiety.

Regardless of what measures you take to protect yourself from crime, someone can get around them. As the locksmith installed my deadbolts, he told me a story of a woman whose deadbolts he installed. Two days later, someone broke in anyway. Hacked the doorframe to pieces to get in. She called him back to fit new locks into a new door and frame.

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Essay, Stories Told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

mymug

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. In its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

About 15 years ago I needed to sell almost everything I owned. That was super hard. Yet after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug survived was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This long-ago reflection absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

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