A Year at Home

March 5, 2021 is an anniversary of sorts. Today marks one full year since I started working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When I said goodbye to my colleagues at work on the evening of March 4, 2020, none of us knew how long we’d be out of the office. All we knew was that the county Department of Health had just recommended that anyone who could work from home should work from home, and our company, along with many others in the Seattle area, had agreed.

I figured we’d be out for a couple of months. I thought that once we got comprehensive testing and contact tracing in place, we’d get a handle on the disease. Then, with proper safeguards and procedures, we’d be able to come back to the office. There would be occasional outbreaks, I imagined, when we’d have to work at home for a few days or a week. But we’d come back once things settled down again. I guess I thought we’d end up like South Korea or Australia.

Fat chance!

If you had told me back then that we’d be working from home for at least a year, maybe eighteen months, I would have thought you were nuts.

I had no idea.

Picture of empty downtown Seattle streets

Downtown Seattle streets emptied during the COVID-19 pandemic, March 18, 2020. Source: Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut

In early March, there were signs of spring all around. The camelia bushes at the front of our house were showing their first blooms. In the backyard, a couple of deer visited every few days to nibble on new shoots at dawn.

Do you remember the fear of those early days? The first COVID deaths in the US occurred near Seattle. We were all on edge. No one really knew how contagious COVID was or how it was transmitted. Was it like SARS? Could you get if from surfaces? We didn’t know but we kept wiping down countertops, faucets and doorknobs anyway. Did we need to wash our groceries – fruits, vegetables, canned goods, all of it? And what about those Amazon packages?

Asthma runs in our family. We’ve been very cautious. We started getting our groceries delivered, take-out food delivered, even wine and liquor delivered. We try to tip generously but I’m well aware that we’re paying people to take risks that we’re not willing to take ourselves right now; people who may not have the same luxury of choice that we do. Similarly, we rely on everyone behind the scenes, all those people keeping the packages moving, the shelves stocked, and the cash registers staffed. I’m in awe of the courage of doctors and nurses everywhere.

In the early days my wife made cloth masks for everyone in the family. N95’s weren’t available and in any case we were encouraged not to buy them so they could be distributed to frontline health care workers. It seemed shameful that the world’s supposedly most advanced country had to rely on a cottage industry to produce face masks. It’s still shameful.

Late one evening we heard a rumor that Trump was going to declare martial law the next day. From a reliable source, or so we thought. I’m ashamed to admit that at 11:00 pm we rushed out to our local 24-hour Safeway and bought a couple of shopping carts worth of supplies, yes, including toilet paper.

Gradually routine settled in, and monotony.

Fortunately our house is spacious and comfortable. It’s been our safe haven this past year but also our self-imposed confinement. My wife and I each have our own offices. We got used to spending the day on Zoom or Teams or BlueJeans.

I still get dressed for work in the same business casual clothes that I used to wear to the office: usually a button-front shirt and chino pants. At the end of the day, I change into jeans. The routine helps me keep a clear separation between work time and personal time. I think it helps.

I go out for a walk almost every day after work, through my neighborhood and down to a small nearby lake. About forty-five minutes. It’s calming to watch the ducks paddling around on the gently lapping water. I’ve watched the seasons change on my walks, seen the cherry and dogwood trees blossom and the leaves come out. On one corner there’s a house that looks unoccupied with a big old apple tree in the front yard. It dropped hundreds of apples on the ground back in September. One time, someone I didn’t know said hello to me and said they saw me walking past their house every day.

Since April, my wife has been cutting my hair. She’s got really good at it. Amazing what you can learn on YouTube.

Speaking of hair, I think mine is getting thinner. Maybe it’s stress. Or it could just be age.

One bright summer day I had to go to the post office to get a document notarized. As I was getting out of the car I reached into my pocket for a mask and realized I’d forgotten to bring one. Drove back home. Grabbed a mask. Drove back. Since then I’ve had dreams where I’m going somewhere and I realize I don’t have a mask and wake up feeling panicky.

When Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country after the murder of George Floyd, we wanted to join the local marches but our health concerns, our fears, held us back. We made donations instead. It’s not the same, I know.

We’ve almost completely stopped watching television. My wife and I have always been avid readers and we’ve become even more fond of books this year. It’s not just escapism. In fact I read mostly nonfiction. I think it’s because we spend all day online involved in our own real life streaming video shows. The last thing we want to do in the evening is turn on another screen and watch another show.

In the fall we had our back deck replaced. It had been slowly rotting away for years. We were able to enjoy a couple of socially distanced gatherings with family and friends on the new deck before the rain and the cold drove us indoors for the winter.

We’ve done Zoom calls and FaceTime calls with local friends we can’t hang out with and international friends we can’t visit. Family too. It’s nice. It helps maintain connection. But it doesn’t really cure the isolation.

At Christmas we hosted a family lunch. In our garage. With the doors open.

It’s a particular cruelty of COVID-19 that it turns friends and loved ones into potentially lethal threats.

We got a dump of snow in February. In a normal year the schools would have declared a “snow day” and the kids would have stayed home.  This year every day has been a snow day.

This week there are signs of spring again. Daffodils are blooming in the parks. Our camelias are starting to bud, and the deer have returned to sample our shrubs once more.

Picture of a lake with ducks

A year into the pandemic, I’m much calmer. I think it’s a combination of vaccines starting to roll out and Trump getting booted out. It feels like there’s an end in sight.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones. One of the privileged. I have a lot to be thankful for.

I’m alive.

No one in my family has had COVID (unless they were asymptomatic). We had one close call over Thanksgiving when a neighbor who I walk with about once a week got COVID. After twenty-four hours of near panic our tests came back negative. Our neighbor recovered.

We have great health care coverage.

I still have a job. A good job. I work with terrific people. My company has been very supportive.

The internet is working remarkably well. We’ve had a few outages, but mostly they’ve been brief. When you think about how much additional bandwidth has been required to support all that video conferencing, it’s amazing how resilient and reliable the internet has been.

Here again, I need to acknowledge my privilege: There are lots of people who cannot afford or cannot access high-speed internet.

I don’t have school-aged children at home. I know that home-schooling young kids is incredibly demanding on working parents, especially moms who inevitably bear more of the burden. And I’m not a student myself facing disrupted classes, delayed graduation and uncertain career prospects.

And then there are the vaccines! The fact that scientists have developed not one vaccine, but many, in just over a year is a stunning scientific achievement. The way these new mRNA vaccines work, getting your cells to manufacture some of the coronavirus spike protein to stimulate your immune system to create new antibodies, is just incredibly clever. I’m fortunate to be alive at a time when we have developed all that scientific know-how.

Picture of Pfizer COVID Vaccine Vials

Vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Source: Sebastien BozonAFP via Getty Images

I’m eagerly awaiting my turn to get vaccinated. Actually, I’m starting to get antsy. I’ve tried to live in the moment as much as possible this year, not making any plans, not thinking too far ahead. Now with the vaccines so close, I’m feeling restless this spring, wanting to break out of my lockdown cocoon and fly.

I’m looking forward to seeing – and hugging — family and friends again.

I’m looking forward to traveling.

To dining out.

Going to concerts, visiting galleries and museums.

And doing it all without fear.

Still, I don’t really know what life will look like after the pandemic is over. I don’t think we’re going back to “normal” because the old normal doesn’t exist anymore.

I think we’ve all been traumatized to some extent by the pandemic. I can see myself wanting to wear a mask indefinitely in certain situations. It’ll be a while before I feel comfortable getting onto a crowded bus or a crowded elevator.

I don’t think we’re going back to the old 5-days-a-week at the office routine either. I imagine most organizations will adopt some sort of hybrid model. There are some disadvantages to working from home: the inability to quickly ask a question or clear up a misunderstanding, the lack of serendipitous conversations or impromptu meetings, the loss of social contact, but video conferencing works remarkably well.

I think we could see permanent hybrid education too, at least as an option for some students. One thing is virtually certain: there won’t be any more “snow days.”  Classes will just switch to remote learning on days when bad weather prevents students from getting to school.

Frankly, the old normal needed some shaking up anyway. So we’re going to have to create a new one.

What could it look like?

I hope it’s a new normal where we’re a little humbler and a little more compassionate.

I hope we’ll recognize that we need to take better care of each other, starting with fixing our broken, inequitable public health system. Because we’re all at greater risk when any of us can catch or transmit a deadly disease. I hope we understand that whatever the cost of health care for everyone, it’s cheap compared to the trillions spent recovering from this pandemic.

I hope we realize that we must take better care of our planet too. The pandemic has shown us that Nature doesn’t care about borders or political affiliations. Human activity is disrupting Earth’s entire biosphere. Like it or not, we must now take responsibility for looking after it.

I hope we’ve learned that we’re all knit together into one global community living in an increasingly fragile world. We need to find better ways to collaborate on solutions to our common problems.

Lastly, I hope we can hold on to the memory of this year — the fear, isolation, loneliness and boredom – as a reminder of what a blessing family, friends, colleagues and community really are.

In the past year over half a million people have died in the US and hundreds of thousands more around the world.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I got off lightly.

A year at home. It doesn’t feel right to celebrate. But we should still commemorate.

Stay safe, everyone.

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