Friday, December 31, 2021

2021: Good riddance

When last we met, I had just said goodbye to another of our cats, and we had gotten word that the church I had grown up with would be permanently closed. COVID infections had plummeted, though the "Delta variant" of the disease seemed to be threatening a late-Summer resurgence. 

Then I went silent.

But not really. I responded to the church closing in the way I usually do: I created a blog. I intended that it would be a place where I could share all of my photographs and memories of the church, and where other parishioners could do the same. But I quickly discovered that I had far fewer photographs than I remembered, and no one else was really interested in sharing theirs. I took my shot, said what I wanted to say, and stopped.

Babusz was the last of my animal friends to die in 2021. (Ray had died in the Spring, on the same day I got my second COVID shot.) We are now down to three older cats born in 2009, and Mama Cat (most likely born in 2017) and her babies who were born in 2019. All are ferals. Few of our ferals have lived much past 12 before cancer killed them. Feral cats select for fecundity, not long life.

None of my close friends or family have died of COVID so far. One person I know did die, in early September. (She is technically the second person I know who has died. I never met Fr. Tom Carten socially, at least that I was aware of - he once was a lurker at a gathering of bloggers - but my sister knew him well, and I was a big fan of his blog.) I met Joyce Dombroski Gebhart through one of the blogger/politician mixers that we used to have many years ago. She was running for public office on what looked like a pure Tea Party platform. She didn't win. We were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but somehow she became aware of my interest in space and backyard astronomy. She would frequently contact me through Facebook to let me know about interesting events, from planetary alignments to bright passes of the space station. I reciprocated far less often. I have no idea if she was vaccinated, but her politics leads me to believe she was not. She went on a family vacation in the Summer. She and one or more family members contracted COVID. They recovered. She did not.

Message from Harold Jenkins to Joyce Dombroski Gebhart, September 3, 2021: You were always very kind and generous to me, enthusiastically sending me messages about astronomical events and cool space stuff. How many things might i have missed if you hadn't brought them to my attention? Thank you so much. I will miss you.

Earlier in the Summer it had really started to feel like COVID might soon be over. I got together with some friends in late May, for the first time in a year and a half, just as the CDC was announcing the lifting of restrictions for the fully vaccinated. I went to my first poetry reading since February 2020 on June 19, 2021. This was also an opportunity to see a friend I had not seen in well over two years. But everything felt - wrong. Off. The readings ran too long. I began to feel uncomfortable. All I wanted to do was get out of there and go home.

Later I went to a family gathering held outdoors at a cousin's house. At that point the Delta upswing had begun in earnest. But other countries had experienced the Delta variant, and had seen a rise followed by a fall. Sure enough, the Delta spike peaked in September, then began its downward slide. 

I got together with my friends again in early November. Things seemed more uncertain then. What would the next variant bring? Booster shots had already begun, and I was the last of our group to get boosted.

Shortly afterwards the fast-spreading Omicron variant was announced.

On November 19 there was a lunar eclipse, exactly the sort of thing Joyce would have enjoyed.

The moon glows red in a near-total eclipse

My immediate family - with the exclusion of my sister, who lives out of state - gathered for Thanksgiving, our first Thanksgiving in two years. Shortly afterwards we met again for my nephew's birthday. The day after his party I met with some friends whom I had worked with from 1999 through 2007.  We are all getting up in age - I am the youngest of the group - and all have pre-existing conditions that make us much more susceptible to the serious effects of COVID. Even though the Omicron variant had already been announced, the restaurant was fairly crowded with few masks in sight. This has been the rule since mask mandates were dropped over the summer: whenever I go out shopping, which isn't that often, I am usually one of a small minority of people wearing a mask. It is hard to look at these unmasked masses and not think of them as poor naive doomed fools.

Some planets lined up in the post-sunset sky in December - Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter. Venus once again entered a crescent phase. Many people who might not have otherwise seen the crescent of Venus saw it because of the alignment. Once again, something Joyce would have enjoyed.

A tiny bright crescent floats in a sea of blackness.
Crescent of Venus, December 19, 2021

Christmas came, and another family gathering, this time with my sister coming in for only the second time since we were all fully vaccinated. 

My mom poses with a large brown-and white pit bull. The pit bull has a goofy look on her face and her tongue is hanging out of her mouth.
My mom and my nephew's friendly rescue pit bull

I decorated our small Christmas tree fairly enthusiastically this year. I am excited about taking it down and boxing everything up, because I am already thinking about decoration variations for next year. 

A tabletop Christmas tree covered with blue lights and a variety of ornaments. A small Christmas Village surrounds the base of the tree, complete with miniature replicas of ceramic light-up Christmas trees. A photograph of my grandparents taken shortly before my grandfather's death looms over the village,

While COVID may feel like the dominant issue in the world right now, Climate Change is the most significant issue now and will continue to be so for decades - maybe centuries - to come. December tornadoes in the South, firestorms in Colorado driven by 110-mph winds, droughts, floods, and record-breaking temperatures month after month. Here are forsythia and dandelion blossoms in my back yard two days after Christmas:

There is no denying the absolute horror that the resurgence of COVID has presented in the second half of 2021. Where once it looked like COVID had been beaten back into nothingness, it has now soared to unprecedented levels both in Pennsylvania and the U.S. as a whole. Hospitals are once again overcrowded with the unvaccinated sick and dying, to the point that more routine issues like dealing with broken bones, cancer, heart attacks, and other non-COVID issues are being put on the back burner. Even the vaccinated are getting infected with the Omicron variant. The difference is that many of the vaccinated who get infected are not dying or even requiring hospitalization, though their long-tern prognosis is unknown. But in the meantime, Republicans continue to push rejection of any vaccine in favor of post-infection treatments.

Which brings us to here. The end of one year, and the beginning of another. Over 800,000 Americans have died of COVID since the start of the pandemic. Russian forces are massed on the Ukrainian border, ready to invade and trigger a confrontation with the U.S. and NATO. Kim Jon-Un is strangely silent. I continue to work from home, though how much longer that will continue is unknown. None of my cats are sick or dying. None of my family or friends are sick with COVID.

Betty White died on the last day of 2021, just two weeks short of her 100th birthday.

Good riddance, 2021.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

St. Mary's is closing

I realized a few years ago that what I've been doing with this blog all the while is documenting a passing world. Now it's been officially announced that yet another part of that world is passing away.

I have documented St. Mary's, its church, school, and associated buildings, from the very earliest days of this blog. I hope I can share some of those memories with others who will miss the church they grew up in.

Babusz, Summer 2006 - July 10, 2021

Babusz died at 10:45 in the morning on Saturday, July 10, 2021.

Cats are creatures of habit, and changes in habit can indicate a problem. Around Christmas this year - not long before Homer died - my mom placed a box on a generally-disused rocker in our parlor, a few feet from the spot where I have my temporary work station set up. It was a gift box that had contained pears and cheese shipped by one of her friends at Christmastime. It's a nice box, sturdy, about the size and shape of a thick attache case, and the plan was to use it to store Christmas ornaments or decorations. But Babusz had other ideas. She quickly claimed the box as her own, enjoying the slight flexibility of the lid that allowed her to comfortably lounge there for hours at a time. She also enjoyed pulling at the edges, not with her claws out, but more like she was massaging the pads of her paws. While I worked she would sometimes squirm around on the box and emit little "look at me" vocalizations, though she never wanted  - or permitted - me to pet her.

That stopped sometime in late May or early June. Suddenly she was no longer on her box. Nor did she spend any more time on the parlor couch, another favorite lounging spot. Instead she went into hiding, under a chair on one corner of the room or an endtable on another. She would stealthily emerge several times a day, race to use the litterbox, and then return to her hiding spot.

This went on for two weeks. Then, gradually, she began to re-emerge. She would go back to her box on the chair for a few minutes at a time several times a day, but would quickly return to her hiding spot. She also began making appearances in the parlor bow window, having laid claim to one corner of it. She seemed to especially enjoy being there at sunset, and would sometimes spend part of the night there.

It took about another two weeks for her to resume spending most of her time in the window or on her box on the rocker, and very little time in hiding. But now it became apparent that she was losing weight.

My mom tried to introduce tempting new foods into her diet to try to convince her to eat, but nothing really impressed her. A visit to the vet confirmed our worst fears: cancer. Nothing to be done. The vet offered to euthanize her on the spot. But at this point Babusz was still a vital, active cat. Aside from the lack of enthusiasm for food and recent hiding behavior, she did not seem to be in any pain or distress. After some cajoling, the vet agreed to send us home with an appetite stimulant and a hydration kit.

That was a week and a half ago. Babusz continued to lose weight since then. But she also continued to go where she wanted to go and do what she wanted to do, to spend time on her box or in her window, to continue to use her favorite litterbox. Even last night I found her in her spot on the window. Getting there required jumping onto a chair, climbing onto the back, and crossing over onto the windowsill. That's where she was when I went to bed.

This morning my mom found Babusz on the kitchen floor by the waterbowls. She was breathing but unresponsive. She continued like that for several more hours. She died in my mom's arms at 10:45 AM.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The United States did not achieve President Biden's goal of having 70% of all eligible Americans getting at least their first COVID-19 vaccine by July 4, 2021, a failure the Republicans at CPAC (the second CPAC convention this year) are currently celebrating. Vaccine refusal rates correspond fairly well with rates of support for Trump in the 2020 election. Some states and broad regions have very low vaccination rates - 40% or less - and are seeing increasing rates of infection. Already their ERs are filling up and needing to take the same drastic measures that were widespread in the pre-vaccine days. Meanwhile, the "Delta variant," a faster-spreading, more aggressive mutation of COVID-19 has become the dominant version of COVID in the United States (as has previously happened in other countries) and is allegedly responsible for infections among those who had already received a vaccine.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

A long time between readings

Eighteen months.

The last time I went out to an event of any sort was Saturday, February 22, 2020. That was the final edition of the Writers' Showcase, held at the Olde Brick Theatre (a.k.a. the Diva Theater) in Scranton, PA. It was an unusual event, to say the least: the founder and co-host of the event was not there; neither, apparently, were the owners/operators of the venue, since the doors were locked and the lights were out. But the other host was there, as were the readers, and a small audience. So we held the event anyway, in the back parking lot of the theater, lit by a sodium vapor light and the stars glowing in a clear, crisp Winter sky, including a recently-dimmed Betelgeuse. (Betelgeuse, an irregularly variable star, had plunged to a dimness never before observed, leading some to speculate that it was about to undergo the supernova explosion waiting at the end of its life. We didn't realize it at the time, but Betelgeuse was already brightening that night; analysis suggests that the dimming was caused by the alignment of an orbiting dust cloud.) The night was cold, the crowd was small, and the threat of the incursion of the COVID-19 virus, which at that point had been spreading rapidly through New York City and Philadelphia and major port cities on the West coast, hung over us - had anyone been to New York or Philadelphia lately? But it was a successful and very enjoyable event.

Eighteen months. One election, one insurrection, over 600,000 people in the U.S. dead of COVID-19 later.

The Blackwatch Cafe was supposed to open before the pandemic hit, but COVID-19 has had a way of messing up everybody's plans. Instead it opened in late April 2021. It is on the grounds of Nay Aug Park in Scranton, in a beautiful stone structure that looks like it might once have served as a guard house of some sort - but was in fact originally the women's lavatory. The poetry reading was conceived just a few weeks before it was held there, after a chance visit to the new coffee shop by poets Michael Czarnecki and Tamar Samuel-Siegel.

Michael and Tamar were the featured poets, and nine additional poets read as well. The event was held on June 19, 2021 - Juneteenth, the first officially recognized Juneteenth in the United States. But it also happened to be the last day of Spring. I read "Springtime by the Numbers," which I had originally written (and read) on the last day of Spring in 2013.


Michael Czarnecki

Tamar Samuel-Siegel

Event flyer

In contrast to the February 22, 2020 event - cold, possibly below freezing, though no one seemed particularly uncomfortable during the hour-and-change that we all stood outside under the stars - the weather for the June 19, 2021 event was absolutely beautiful, with lots of sunshine and cool breezes, some possibly brought on by the helicopter which flew over us several times and landed in the park about a hundred yards away. After the event was over but while a few stragglers were still hanging out at the now-closed coffeeshop, a gentle rain began to fall.

It was the first reading at the Blackwatch Cafe, but perhaps just the first of many more to come. Gradually, other venues will reopen and re-establish their regular readings and open mics. 

The last Writers' Showcase in the parking lot of the
Olde Brick Theatre, Scranton, February 22, 2020


New cases of COVID-19 in the United States continue to fall. They have actually fallen to such a level that a linear y-axis is becoming less and less useful. Switching to a logarithmic scale for the y-axis makes the current downward trend more visible. Cases are now at a level not seen since the fourth week of March 2020.

The Writers' Showcase event mentioned above took place on February 22, 2020 - a date that doesn't even show up on the graphs here, which I have chosen to start on March 1, 2020. At that point the disease was spreading rapidly, but the mass dying hadn't started yet. Things would get very bad very quickly, and then get worse, and worse, and worse. 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

In the Year of Brood X, 2021


Cicada on my cherry tree, June 19, 2021

I have been blogging for seventeen years. My first "official" blog post was May 14, 2004 - there had been another post a few days earlier that just said "Coming soon - Another Monkey with a blog!", but I deleted that after I officially started my blog. 2004 was a Brood X year, another year in which the Brood X cicadas emerge during the final stages of their seventeen-year cycle, and they were the subject of my twenty-fifth blog post on June 9, 2004. The cicada eggs that were laid that year grew up to be the cicadas of this year.

(I was in college during the previous Brood X cycle in 1987, and spent that summer at the TV faceplate factory in Pittston where my father worked. I remember cicadas thudding off the windshield of our car as we made the commute to work. I was two years old during the Brood X emergence before that one, and don't have any memories of it.)

I have been hearing cicadas for the past few weeks around Nanticoke, but had only seen a single one (flying near the top of one of my cherry trees) up until yesterday. The cicadas seem to be concentrated in the area alongside Route 29 on the east side of town, although there are also some along Middle Road to the south and possibly some along the river flats to the north. In large numbers they emit a sound that sounds exactly like one of the dozen or so sound effects that were used for phasers in the original TV series of Star Trek. Individually they sound like an electric drill being used in short bursts, to the point that many people assume that this is what they are hearing: some rude and thoughtless neighbor using power tools at all hours of the day and night, over and over.

Yesterday I went for a ride to the Hanover Mall to get some specialized pet food for our fifteen year old cat Babusz, who recently had an incident of odd behavior - she suddenly abandoned her usual hangout spots and went into hiding, choosing to isolate herself in odd areas around the house and refusing to accompany my mom to the bathroom, as was her custom. She did this for about two weeks, and then gradually began to emerge again, spending some of the day in her old usual spot on a rocker near where I work, racing my mom to the bathroom some (but not all) of the time. But since she emerged she has been losing weight. We'll get her to the vet soon, but having lost four cats in the last twelve months I fear the worst. At my sister's recommendation we are trying a new food/treat, Churu by Inaba. She has gradually taken to it. Our grocery store doesn't carry it, by Village Pet Supplies in the Hanover Mall does.

Babusz, July 12, 2020

The Hanover Mall is just the other side of Route 29. When I got there, I stepped out of the car and into the cicada chorus, providing a science fiction-y background to the mundane scenes of people getting out of their cars or loading purchases into their cars. I saw another cicada in the air as I parked the car.

Reports are that cicadas are absent from many areas around Northeastern Pennsylvania where they had been seen seventeen years ago. Development has disrupted and destroyed many of the underground cicada sites, eliminating whole breeding populations. NEPA is at the edge of the Brood X emergence territory, so things can be a bit more iffy here as to whether cicadas will actually show up anywhere. 

Today I went to a poetry reading, the first event I have gone to since February 22, 2020. I stepped out of the house with my Chromebook in its makeshift carrying case and my old-and-getting-older Nikon Coolpix P520. On my way to the car I heard the familiar buzz-flap of cicada wings, and watched a cicada alight on the cherry tree next to me. (My cherry trees produced their first decent crop of fruit in several years, though the cherries just ripened earlier this week and the birds have already eaten everything I didn't pick.) I carefully dropped the Chromebook, broke out the camera, and coaxed out two decent photos: 

I don't know how much longer the cicadas will be around, singing their song. When they are gone, we will not see Brood X again until 2038. If I live that long, I will be seventy years old. Will I still be blogging then?

Friday, June 11, 2021

Two eclipses in Spring 2021

Eclipses have seasons, and travel in groups of two or three. The seasons are complicated and are dictated by the way the orbits of the Earth around the Sun and the Moon around the Earth interact. In 2021 there were two eclipses in the Spring (total lunar on May 26, annular solar on June 10) and there will be two more in late Autumn (near-total lunar on November 19, and a total solar on December 4.) I was lucky enough to be in a position to view both of the Spring eclipses. 

Unfortunately for me, both of these eclipses were visible in Nanticoke at or around sunrise - and I work the late shift. 

On May 26 I forgot about the eclipse completely. Only the very earliest stages would be visible to me, and only at sunrise, as the Moon slipped beneath the Western horizon. Still, I stayed up all night for unknown reasons, and became aware almost by accident that the Moon was glowing bright red in the front window. I quickly grabbed my camera and tripod and snapped off a few photos of the rapidly-setting Moon through the curtains, through the window, and between the houses across the street.

The June 10 eclipse was different. I made plans to view it. I chose my viewing spot: the eastern high school parking lot, overlooking the Little League field - which would have been an ideal spot to observe Comet NEOWISE last July, I realized a few days after the fact. I woke up at 4:45 AM, about three and a half hours after I had fallen asleep, drove the half-mile to the high school, parked the car, and set up a few minutes before the 5:29 AM sunrise.

The minutes dragged on. Sunrise time came and went, and all that happened was that the horizon - the mountains that frame the Wyoming Valley - got a bit brighter. As a sun pillar formed, I realized the Sun was about to rise behind a copse of trees, and I would miss the rising eclipsed Sun at its dimmest and most photogenic. I grabbed my camera and tripod and ran thirty feet to the right, where the Sun would be clear of the trees.

The camera tried to adjust the exposure to balance the brightness, making the rising Sun difficult to see. I was shocked to see the sun rising as a shining crescent. I had expected a much smaller bite to be taken out of it, but I had also heard that it would be 75% covered for Northeastern Pennsylvania. I wondered what someone who had managed to miss the news of the eclipse might think if they accidentally caught a glimpse of the glowing scimitar on the horizon. 

It was possible to observe the rising Sun, filtered through hundreds of miles of atmosphere, without risk of eye damage - but only briefly. After less than a minute the Sun was painful to even glance at, and I was worried the intense light would damage my camera. I packed up my camera and tripod and headed home.

*                    *                    *

Just months after COVID-19 vaccines became widely available in the United States, infection rates have plummeted to numbers not seen since March 2020, and death rates have slowed to nearly flatten the cumulative death curve. Eligibility is expanding to younger and younger age groups. Still, it is looking like the country may fail to achieve President Biden's goal of 70% of the population having received at least one shot by July 4, thanks to a small but dedicated group of people who claim that the vaccine is worse than the disease. These people will continue to serve as a reservoir  for COVID-19, breeding variants, waiting to infect those who cannot take the vaccine for legitimate reasons of health, waiting to infect those who are vaccinated but who have only 95% protection against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in India, new cases of COVID-19 are down significantly since mid-May, but cumulative deaths have nearly doubled since mid-April.

The United States is poised on the brink of a return to normalcy, following nations like New Zealand who have been there for months. Will the rest of the world be heading the same way? 

Sunday, May 02, 2021

A beautiful day

I had another dental appointment yesterday. I'm catching up on all the dental work that should have been done over the last year, and most of the year before that - maybe even longer than that. After the appointment I drove half a mile to an ATM where I stood in a socially-distanced line with several other people - I was the only one masked, because I couldn't be sure of anyone else's vaccination status, and didn't want to take any chances. I noticed that the day, which had been crisp and clear when I left the house shortly before 10:00, had turned clear and somewhat less crisp. To me the cool temperature (probably in the low 60s F) and the low humidity were absolutely perfect, but others wore heavier clothes more appropriate for early Winter.

As I drove back down the hill to the supermarket, NPR announced that fully one-third of the U.S. adult population was now "fully vaccinated" (at least two weeks beyond their second shot of a two-dose vaccine, or at least two weeks beyond a single-shot vaccination), and two-thirds have had at least a single shot - and India was experiencing unprecedented COVID-19 rates.

I moseyed through the supermarket, not under any sort of time pressure. I got everything on my list plus one or two extras. I got home, began to unload the car, and was completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the day.

It was one of those rare early-Spring days. The day had gotten warmer but was still quite cool with low humidity. The sky was cloudless, and the shade of blue that poets and artists term cerulean. The birds were singing, flowers were blooming, trees were leafing out  or showing blossoms. But there was something else...something I knew, but couldn't quite...

Yes. Donald Trump was no longer occupying the White House. We once again had a sane, decent President. Joseph Robinette Biden. The sort of guy who will pluck a dandelion gone to seed out of a lawn and hand it to his wife to blow on and make a wish. A President elected with more votes than any other President in history.

Suddenly the sky seemed to get brighter, the air sweeter, the birds more exuberant in their song.

Trump hasn't gone away. He's still ensconced in his lair at Mar-a-Lago. He still has his supporters, the people who engaged in the violent attempt to stop the counting of Electoral votes on January 6, 2021, and the people who vigorously deny any such thing happened. Five out of eight of my neighbors voted for him, including the people across the street, the ones who have friends visit every Sunday in an SUV with a TRUMP 2024 bumper sticker, and the people down the street who flew a TRUMP flag and a COME AND TAKE IT flag and now fly a new flag, a mockery of the flag of the United States where the stars representing the fifty states have been replaced with a Roman III representing the right-wing "Three Percenters" movement. They're out there on Parler and Gab, talking about the things they'll do after they're in charge again, how they'll execute all members of the media (except for the ones from propaganda outlets like OANN and Newsmax, and maybe a select few Trump loyalists from Fox News), how Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and many other Democrats have in fact already been executed and replaced with clones. They're insane, they're dangerous, and they still have the vote. They have a very good chance of taking back one or both houses of Congress in 2022, especially if they are successful in their legislative efforts to make voter suppression official state policy in dozens of states. They have a real chance to take back the White House in 2024.

But for the moment, a brief moment at midday on the first day of May, all seemed to be right with the world. It wasn't. All that would be dealt with in the moments that followed. Yesterday I allowed myself a little time to feel relief, gratitude, and joy.

(Note: After I unloaded the groceries I realized I hadn't stopped at the drugstore to pick up some prescription refills for my mom. I was able to persuade her to leave the house for a brief outing. We stopped at the drugstore, the cemetery, the dollar store, and a chocolate store, and then headed home to attend church online.)

Sunday, April 11, 2021

First steps back

 I received my second dose of the Moderna vaccine on March 6, 2021, four weeks after my first dose. Two weeks later, on March 20, 2021, I was officially "fully vaccinated."

Like so many others, I celebrated with a trip to the dentist.

It wasn't my first trip to the dentist during the pandemic. It was actually my second. My first had been on February 6, the same day as my first Moderna dose. I hadn't planned on going until two weeks after my second dose, but a shattered molar - a very common stress-related phenomenon during the pandemic - caused me to bump up my plans. During the routine exam, the dentist spotted a few cavities that had taken hold in the two years since my last visit, and she scheduled a follow-up for March 6, the day of my second vaccination. I begged off and was able to get rescheduled for two weeks later, coincidentally the day I officially reached "fully vaccinated" status.

I had big plans for that day. One of the few remaining "gray lady" banks in Nanticoke had announced that it would be closing, and I suspect that it may be demolished soon. We have family history with this bank - my grandfather worked there as a maintenance man after his jobs as a foreman the local silk throwing mill and at an out-of-state auto factory ended.  I planned to go out and photograph the three remaining buildings, much as I once photographed the churches of Nanticoke. I also planned to return to the cemetery where I took the photo of the crocus in the previous post. (Had I gone there, I might have seen some new flowers growing up huge on the other side of the headstone, flowers that looked like crocuses but three times the size of normal crocuses, flowers that would be withered by the time I got there a few weeks later.) I planned to go shopping at stores I hadn't been to in over a year. Maybe I would make a pilgrimage to Hillside Farms to commune with the animals. But first, I wanted to go grocery shopping.

The dental appointment didn't take long. Less than an hour, start to finish. After it was over, I walked to the post office next door and bought some stamps for my mom. Then I drove the car about a hundred yards to the grocery store across the street.

I had a lot to buy. I took my time, trying to feel more relaxed. I was fully vaccinated. I didn't have to be afraid anymore. 

About an hour later I exited the store with my purchases, loaded the car, put the cart away. I got in the car, put on my seat belt, turned the ignition.


Nothing happened.

When I had the car inspected in January, the battery test came back with a 60% charge. This seemed low for a battery that had been installed little more than two years earlier, on October 31, 2018. The guy from AAA who came to the supermarket parking lot to give me a jump confirmed that the battery was now at 50% charge and should be replaced. I asked him how long batteries usually lasted these days. He said most lasted at least three years. I guess I was just lucky.

(The battery hadn't died because I left the lights on or anything like that. Starting a car drains a battery tremendously, and it recharges as you drive. Starting the car, driving it a hundred yards or so from the dentist's to the supermarket, and then trying to start it again probably drained it past the point of useful charge.) 

After I got a jump I took the car on a forty-mile round trip, but then parked the car for the weekend. No outings or adventures on that battery. I was able to make an appointment to get the battery replaced early the next week at the same shop where I had had the inspection in January, a shop several generations of my family have used through several generations of the owner's family. I asked the owner - who is also the chief mechanic -  about why the battery might have died so quickly. He said it was because the car has mostly been used for short trips once or twice a week for the past year, combined with cold winter weather. I asked it this was something he was seeing more of lately, and he pointed to a line of replaced batteries on the floor. Like shattering molars, dead car batteries are another side-effect of the the pandemic. 

A week later, March 27, I had to run out to pick up some Easter chocolate from a local candy maker. After I loaded up the trunk with chocolate, I decided to go on my delayed shopping trip.

I started with Barnes & Noble, the last bookstore in the area. Barnes & Noble had been badly damaged by a tornado in June 2018. (A corner of the building was torn off, though the structural integrity remained good, and much of the interior went undamaged - many tables stacked with books went untouched.) The store remained closed for the rest of the year while the damage was repaired. I missed the grand re-opening in January 2019, and then didn't go there for one reason or another for most of the rest of 2019. I last stopped in back in February 2020, and bought a softcover of Neil Gaiman's collection Trigger Warning, which I would read and reread throughout the next year.

I was nervous about entering the store. I didn't know what to expect. I immediately noticed that the bargain books section had been reduced to a single small table and an overloaded cart. The shelves had been rearranged in a strange way, with shelves butted up against adjacent shelves at right angles, creating a sort of labyrinth that made it very difficult to move quickly through the store, especially if you are trying to avoid other shoppers. I forgot why I was there and what I was looking for. Surely I wasn't just browsing? I decided to seek out more Neil Gaiman, only to find that he was absent from the Science Fiction section. I wound my way through the labyrinth to the adjacent Fantasy section, and located a few of his titles. I picked up paperbacks of Fragile Things and Smoke & Mirrors, each priced at half as much as the softcover I had bought a year earlier. Satisfied with my selection, I hurried to the periodicals department. I briefly considered picking up the latest New Scientist, Skeptical Inquirer, or Fortean Times, but in the end I just wanted to get out. I found my path to the checkout obstructed by other shoppers and had to swing wide. Finally I was checked out, out the door, and on my way back to the car.

Next up was Lowes for a new amber low-intensity LED lightbulb for my triple-headed light. Then to Michaels Arts and Crafts for some floral foam, and Dollar Tree for various items - most of which they didn't have. For all of these places, this was my first visit in well over a year. I was double-masked and running in every store, breathing as little as possible.

Finally I stopped at Burger King to use a coupon to get dinner for that night and the next few days. The drive-through there was extremely crowded, and this stop alone took nearly half an hour. 

I got home about three hours after I had set out for the candy store.

Later that week I took my mom (who became fully vaccinated two days before me) to a appointment in a hospital. We rode in an elevator. I sat in a waiting area for an hour. None of this would have been imaginable a month earlier.

Last Sunday was Easter. We got together for dinner with my brother and his family (all fully vaccinated several weeks before us) at their house. No masks. No distancing. The first time we had been together  indoors in close contact in well over a year.

I've made plans to meet with a group of friends over the Memorial Day weekend, and with another group the Sunday after Mother's Day - all fully vaccinated. I'm eagerly waiting for other friends to get their first shots this week, so their countdown to full vaccination can begin.

The downward plunge of cases has slowed, stopped, and reversed - and now case counts have slowly crept up to a level last seen in late October, or at the height of the Summer Surge. We're not done yet. Vaccinations are continuing at an admirable pace, but we still have a way to go. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Pandemic: Year One

Golden orange crocus in bloom in front of base of granite tombstone
Yellow crocus at cemetery, March 13, 2021

One year. One lost year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for longer than that. The dying started in late 2019. The early epicenter was Wuhan, China. By the time the world knew what was happening, it was too late to stop it from spreading across the world, and probably had been for some time.

COVID-19 is unusual. Highly contagious, yes, as any good virus should be. Kills quite a few of the people who get it and develop symptoms - not ideal for a virus, but acceptable as long as infected individuals do their job of spreading the virus before they die. Asymptomatic spread is a hallmark of COVID-19, and that's unusual. 

In the past, asymptomatic carriers of disease (like "Typhoid Mary") were unusual enough to make their way into the history books and national lore. Now the standard operating procedure for COVID-19 is: an individual gets infected by breathing in virus particles that an infected person has breathed out, the virus infects them, they spend about two weeks being contagious without showing any symptoms, and then they develop symptoms while continuing to be contagious. Some of the people who develop symptoms die. Some recover completely. Some recover and suffer lifetime consequences. 

And the symptoms! The consequences! Roll the dice, see what you get: lungs that look like frosted glass on an X-ray, "COVID toes," intense generalized pain, chronic cough,  difficulty breathing, loss of smell and taste, hair loss, and lots more. Maybe you'll get some. Maybe you'll get only a few. Maybe you'll die in just a few days. Maybe you'll hang in for weeks, months even, and then you'll recover. Or die.

In the first year, over 2.6 million people have died of COVID-19 worldwide, more than 530,000 in the United States alone.* The United States had an increase in deaths of 15%. in 2020 compared to previous years. In some countries, the rate of "excess deaths" for 2020, the number of deaths in excess of what would be expected based on past data, exceeds 50%.

And there are people who will dispute every one of these things. They will tell you that COVID is "just the flu." They will tell you that masks don't work. That no one has actually died of COVID. That it's the vaccines that are actually killing people.

Oh, we have vaccines now. Two, by Pfizer and Moderna, were developed during the Trump administration, though Pfizer was developed independently of the Federal government. The Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine was approved just a few weeks ago, and teachers began receiving it this week. There are other vaccines in use throughout the world. Mass vaccination programs are taking place worldwide.

We also have a plan now. A plan passed without a single Republican vote. During the Trump occupation, Trump pitted states against each other in competition for critical resources. Chaos was the order of the day. That day is over.

Joe Biden pledged to get 100 million shots into arms in his first 100 days as President. He got us there in his first 50.

We're not done yet. We can still snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. The "new cases" graph may** reflect certain societal movements: the final campaign rally push in September through early November 2020, Thanksgiving gatherings in late November, Christmas in late December. It's undeniable that since mid-January 2021, new cases have dropped dramatically, though the rate of decline has leveled out since mid-February. The CDC is advising a cautious approach, maintaining the rules of masking and social distancing, avoiding crowds and indoor events. Texas and Missisippi have essentially ended all COVID-related restrictions - and the Texas Attorney General is threatening legal action against cities like Austin that have chosen to adhere to CDC guidelines. St. Patrick's Day weekend is upon us. Spring is coming, and Summer is not far behind. The same people who demanded "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! REOPEN NOW!" a year ago are making that same demand again, after nearly one on every 600 Americans has died of COVID-19. New variations of COVID-19 have emerged. Small but significant portions of the population are rejecting vaccination, while larger numbers of people are trying to get vaccinated and cannot, either because they do not yet qualify in their state or they qualify but there are not enough vaccines available for everyone.*** 

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Or will things once again get worse before they get better? Time will tell.

*Last Spring, a friend who was involved in COVID response predicted 500,000 U.S. deaths by the end of 2020. His prediction was off by about seven weeks. My post-election prediction of 400,000 U.S deaths by Inauguration Day was almost exactly correct.

**Europe shows similar increases in the final months of 2020, without Presidential elections or Thanksgiving gatherings, so who the hell knows.

***My mom received her second Moderna shot on March 4, 2021. I received mine on March 6. My brother's entire family has already received both shots, some of Pfizer, some of Moderna. A librarian at a local school district, who also teaches classes and qualifies as an educator, received her Johnson & Johnson shot on Friday, while a librarian at the local library does not yet qualify. My sister, who lives in another state and has multiple health conditions, does not yest qualify for a shot, and other friends who live in the same state as me and who qualify are unable to sign up because of availability.