A series of long, non-gaming posts. Mostly to just document this extraordinary time.
The Gathering Gloom
It was just about a one year ago when the world here changed. The COVID stay-at-home/shelter-in-place, call it what you will measures began rolling out just about one year ago now, catching many flat footed.
I live and work in Northern California just outside the Bay Area. About a year ago, the Bay Area counties announced their lockdown and surrounding areas were rapidly moving in that direction too. We were expecting something any moment.
We had been following the developing situation for weeks with increasing trepidation. While up north Seattle was becoming a local hotspot, transportation and network connections were distributing COVID globally in now fairly obvious ways, but at the time in ways that certainly didn’t seem direct. From abroad to an elder care home in Seattle seemed pretty indirect and frankly terrifying. There was no good news. Only bad news and worse news.
It only took a few degrees of separation to cross the globe from a viral hotspot to your front door. A case in point– Americans on a cruise ship that had been quarantined in Japan were repatriated to a nearby Air Force base here in California. It was clear from reporting that quarantine measures implemented there were woefully inadequate all but assuring community spread in the vicinity of the base and beyond.
Critically ill cruise ship patients suffering from COVID were transported to a local regional trauma center/university teaching hospital very close to my workplace. My newest co-worker, starting only weeks before lockdown, had recently relocated from the east coast with their significant other, a critical healthcare worker, who was on call at the hospital receiving the critical COVID patients.
From China, to Japan, to California to the office next door to me in the blink of an eye. The small town in which I reside is a university town with students and faculty routinely coming and going from all points on the globe. Nothing particularly unique about this situation, but a stark reminder of how interconnected our world is. At the time, of course, little was understood about transmission, what precautions to take, whether transmission was airborne, by surface contact, etc., so it was just one giant anxiety ball of chaos.
As the situation evolved in an increasingly alarming way through February and into March 2020, the pandemic-not-yet-in-name was starting to hit close to home– I had a conference scheduled for May in Portugal. Ordinarily, I’d book travel and accommodation quite a bit in advance. With COVID looming, I hedged. I’m glad I did. The conference got cancelled in late March along with most everything else.
I participate in two different fantasy baseball groups which get together, in person, to draft players in mid-to late March before baseball season starts. Some of these folks have been playing in the league for more than twenty years, so its a bit of an annual ritual/reunion that we all look forward to. Many of them are at retirement age or beyond with attendant health complications.
Right up to the lockdown order, we were discussing whether to cancel the draft. The vast majority of team owners (particularly the older ones) said better safe than sorry. Its too risky to put 25 older people in a conference room for 4+ hours to draft baseball players.
Fortunately, I can work fairly effectively if I have a phone and the internet. I saw the writing on the wall and advised several of my junior colleagues that they might want to take home everything they needed to work that night, including stealing more office supplies than usual, in the event that we would not be able to return to the office.
I collected some things, put my office phone on out of office, grabbed some work files, a few stacks of extra folders and reams of printer paper and walked out of my office. Our local lockdown was ordered the next day. I haven’t returned in over a year.
The New Not Normal
The lockdown was not unexpected, but all the same, it came very quickly and caught most unprepared. Workplaces and the supply chain hiccupped and choked. Protective measures and procedures at critical services were hit and miss. Different counties and cities were implementing different rules.
The most immediate impact and concern for us was continued uninterrupted access to vital things like being able to obtain prescription drugs and groceries without having to put oneself in mortal peril. Everything else really didn’t matter that much.
The first week or two was the most precarious. With most everyone home, restaurants and workplaces closed, and the general, when-in-doubt-horde response to an existential crisis, grocery stores were crowded, having trouble keeping even basics in stock, and valiantly trying to maintain some kind of safe environment (whatever that meant then or now) without clear guidance or support from government or an over abundance of we’re-all-in-this-together-so-lets-not-all-go-nuts-just-yet mind set.
I (used to) work outside the house, so it was usually most convenient for me to just swing by the grocery store on my way back home in the evening to pickup whatever was needed. Over the years and with the benefit of having a good grocery store 1/2 a mile away, we evolved to keep minimal stock on hand at home. Buy just what we need, fresh, in season, when we need it and avoid waste unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise.
Increasingly, stores were becoming crowded and supplies were becoming dodgy or straight up nonexistent. Literally shelves empty of items that would never sell out in a typical year. Most had never witnessed anything like it before and if anything it fueled urge to horde. Anything that was a pantry staple was becoming impossible to obtain (roll file footage of toilet paper shortages/hording/arbitrage), and narrow, crowded aisles were becoming biologically hazardous. Masks were not universally a thing, nor had they become fully tribal yet either.
The anxiety of shopping in a crowded panicked store became unbearable, so I began shifting my shopping forays until the last thirty minutes of the stores hours in the evenings when crowds were lightest. Shelves tended to be barest as well, but the tradeoff was well worth it. After the trip through the hot zone, everything went through a decontamination process at home just in case.
When the lockdown hit, we found ourselves a bit flat footed without much of a supply buffer. Just-in-time doesn’t handle supply chain disruptions very well. And of course to build up that buffer to smooth out any hills or valleys of availability was essentially hording by any other name.
Slowly, we began to build up a bit of a buffer so a grocery run wasn’t required every few days. That of course required storage. With stories of the production of major food processing facilities being shutdown due to outbreaks, I broke down and bought a small freezer from an online retailer so we’d have a buffer. Unfortunately, inventories were low or nonexistent for these too, so I had to drive about 40 minutes to go pick one up. Fortunately, the retailer had just implement “curbside” pickup. Op success. Long term storage obtained.
I found myself reliving my parents’ depression-war era youth of frugality, scarcity and self-reliance. We barely had a back yard at our house, but we started growing vegetables in planters, pots and growbags. Seeds were all but impossible to come by as were transplants, so we saved seeds from the produce we purchased and planted those.
After several harrowing weeks of grocery shopping in the bleak and desperate stores, I began searching for alternatives. I generally eschewed gig economy companies because of their fundamentally exploitive nature, but given the masses suddenly out of work and the risk associated with the stores, they filled a gap, and I could at least even up some of the economic unfairness by tipping the driver heavily. Capitalism still wins, but at least we all would lose a bit less.
This was not terribly economic and it was still a bit of a lottery to see if you would get anything even remotely like what you ordered due to outages. The few stores that had tentatively waded into the delivery space choked on the new volume. Including some surprisingly large ones.
I finally found a local store chain in a nearby town that actually had a robust website that offered curbside pickup. Safer for the customer, safer for the workers, the money stays in the community and fewer patrons clogging the aisles. I have to drive 10+ miles to get there, but its become my once a week ritual.
With groceries sorted, the immediate existential crisis lessened a bit and things began to settle somewhat into a new hunker-in-the-bunker routine–assuming things didn’t get disastrously worse. Work was radically impacted do to the lockdown and remained unsettled. Being locked down, having an existential crisis in your face 24/7 and continuous access to the internet with its nonstop torrent of doom, gloom and unmeasurable human suffering wasn’t going to be a recipe for staying sane without some coping strategies. Figuring out how not to go nuts during an indeterminate lockdown would become the next order of business.
Those and other scintillating topics to be addressed in the next post.
You can find part II here.