Sunset Reflection on the FMC Tower

Reaching One Year of Self-Isolation

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So here it is: one year of self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, March 16, 2020, Holly and I started working from home and taking precautions. One year later, we’re still working from home and still being careful, but things seems more optimistic now that there is a vaccine. Distribution has been slow here in Philadelphia so we don’t have any indication of when we’ll be able to get ours. Just knowing that it’s somewhere on the horizon is a big relief.

One of the many amazing things about the past year is how quickly things escalated.

I wrote about some of the early days in my Reaching 6 months of Self-Isolation post, but I certainly have a different perspective after another 6 months.

Holly and I went out to dinner with my brother on March 1. I don’t recall any discussion of the coronavirus. If there was any, it was not a big topic of conversation. We certainly had no idea at the time that would be the last we would see each other in-person for over a year and counting.

On March 2, Holly and I took the day off from work to extend my birthday weekend. We went to one of our favorite day-off-from-work places, Cheu Noodle Bar. As with many of the restaurants in the city, Cheu was small and often packed tightly with diners. It’s hard to imagine being in such tight quarters after a year of trying to avoid other people. Sadly, Cheu has not survived the pandemic and closed a few months ago.

After lunch, I took a walk on my own because Holly had to deal with a work thing. I intentionally walked around Chinatown because I had heard people had been avoiding the area because of the virus’s origins in China. Nothing seemed any different as far as I could tell.

The first reference to the coronavirus in my journal was from March 4. I noted feeling a bit down about its creeping presence but not particularly worried about catching it since it had yet to appear in Philadelphia. I said I was “[m]ore concerned about related inconveniences especially since we have so much travel coming up. Flight to CA is three weeks from today.” We had a trip planned to see Holly’s dad and brothers. As of March 9, those plans were still on.

On Saturday, March 7, we went out to dinner with a friend of ours. We chose a place in Chinatown, Ray’s Café, in order to show our support because we had heard businesses were starting to struggle because of the perception that it wasn’t safe there despite the fact that there still hadn’t been a reported case in Philadelphia.

The first Philadelphia case was reported on March 10.

By Friday, March 13, everything started to change for us. We officially canceled our trip—the first of 3 that we canceled in 2020—and the university where Holly and I work announced that all classes were migrating online. By the end of the day Friday, nothing had been announced about what library staff was supposed to do, but supervisors were told to have their staff’s phone numbers. On Saturday, we got the word that we were all expected to start working from home on Monday, and Holly and I spent part of the weekend calling our staff letting them know not to come to work.

I was part of a team charged with making contingency plans in case we did start working from home. I don’t recall when or how many times we met, but it was such a sudden and impromptu gathering that I don’t have any meetings for it on my work calendar.

I do remember going to a meeting of the Graduate Assistant Deans on Tuesday, March 10 to promote some library service, but everyone was so distracted by the possibility of classes moving online. I also recall being at a library event that Wednesday when one of my co-workers saw the announcement that the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic.

That weekend was stressful, but we went to the farmers market as usual, although we tried keeping our distance from other people. And we went out to brunch afterward as was our routine. Those were the last times we have done either.

It seems so naïve now that the initial declaration about working form home was just for the week of March 16th. I speculated in my journal that we would probably we working from home the following week as well.

Now we’re at 52 weeks with only a vague end in sight.

Work

I can’t stress enough how thankful I am that both Holly and I have been able to work from home this entire time. So many people have struggled financially from either losing their jobs or having their hours cut. So many people have been putting themselves at risk to do their jobs.

Our library has been open for a good portion of this time but with only minimal staff. Anyone who can work from home has been asked to do so. I try to not feel guilty about being able to stay home while others have to go in by keeping in mind that my absence from the workplace is as much for their safety as it is mine.

At first, I wasn’t sure how well I would handle working from home all the time. Part of that was just the uncertainty of not knowing how long I would need to. It became easier when I was doing it semester-by-semester rather than week-by-week.

Prior to the pandemic, we were able to apply to work from home one day a week which I had started doing. It was nice having one day where it was easier to concentrate without the bustle of a busy environment.

I was also unsure how busy I would be working from home. As it turns out, I’ve probably been busier working from home than I had been before. I won’t get into the weeds as to why I think this has been, but it has been a pleasant surprise.

After some initial uncertainty, I find that I love working from home so much so I have mixed feelings about the prospect of going back. I do miss interacting with my colleagues but working from home has had so many benefits.

There has been a lot of speculation about how the pandemic will change the workplace and my experience certainly has raised a lot of questions about the need to be physically present every day. The pandemic has changed the way people work, and it’s possible that many of these changes are here to stay.

At the end of August 2019, we moved into a new library building. The public facing spaces are amazing, but I am not a fan of our staff space which falls somewhere between an open office and a cube farm. What feels ironic now is the concern people raised before we even moved in about the easy spread of germs in such an environment. Our workspaces have no barriers between the people next to or behind us. My closest co-work sits only about 3-4 feet away.

Other issues for me are the distractions and the lack of privacy. There are about 50 people in the space so there is a lot of coming and going. Not only is it hard to concentrate because of all the activities, it is also hard to concentrate knowing I could be interrupted at any time. Staff had been pretty conscientious about not disturbing each other but it was always a possibility. Since I’m a supervisor, I often need to deal with sensitive and/or personal emails and files so having my work exposed is problematic. I do have a privacy filter for my computer screen but that is not a perfect solution.

Being a classic introvert, I find being around so many people all day long very stressful and tiring.

Despite not walking as much as I had been, being at home has otherwise been great for my health. Without access to food trucks and with access to a fully functional kitchen, I’m eating better. Not having a commute means I’m waking up a little later. I have control over the temperature, the window shades, and the lights. I can take breaks to get up and stretch. I haven’t been sick in over a year and haven’t had any issues with my back.

I won’t go into any details about how nice it’s been having access to our own bathroom and not have to use a public one.

Because of our close quarters, I’m thinking that returning to work fulltime will be a slow process. Even after most people are vaccinated, there will probably still be a period of time when we’ll be wearing masks and trying to socially distance, as added precaution, meaning not all staff will be able to be in that space all at once.

I’m hoping longer term there will be more flexibility with our work from home arrangement. It would be nice to be able to work from home more than 1 day a week. Yes, I realize I’m in a fortunate position to even contemplate this option.

To be fair, we were only in the new building about 7 months and a lot of that time was a bit chaotic since the building wasn’t 100% finished when we moved in. I didn’t have a lot of time to get acclimated to the new workspace.

Home

We’ve been lucky that the pandemic hasn’t had a dramatic impact on our home lives. Early on, we had concerns about getting the supplies we needed. There were stories about empty store shelves and items being unavailable to order online.

Some of our good fortune was coincidental. Because we don’t have a car, I had already developed a routine of buying some cleaning supplies and paper goods online. I had stocked up on much of these things right before the pandemic so we had a good few weeks of supplies before needing to order more. It was still a little difficult getting what we needed when the time came, but we never had to panic or do without.

When we moved into our new library, the administration gave everyone little gift bags and one of the items included was a bottle of hand sanitizer so we were lucky to have that during the time when it was otherwise difficult to get.

Holly had signed up for Philly Food Works a few weeks before our self-isolation so we were already getting weekly shipments of groceries from local farms. At first, we had to go pick up our box, but then they started delivering once things got serious. Holly also already was a member of the Rancho Gordo Bean Club so we were well-stocked with beans.

The main things we were missing from our weekly trip to the farmers market was coffee and fresh seafood. For most of the time we’ve lived here, we’ve been buying Philly Fair Trade coffee from a stand at the farmers market. Luckily, they also ship so we’ve still been able to enjoy their coffee.

All the Beans
All the Beans

We’ve been able to get our seafood and some other groceries at Di Bruno Bros. They were proactive early on by putting up plexiglass shields at the check-out, providing hand sanitizer, wiping down carts, and enforcing distancing.

At first, it was a little disconcerting to get there and see a line going around the block because they were letting only a few people in at a time. It was good that they had this restriction but it was a definite sign as to how serious the situation was. The line moved quickly since it wasn’t as long as it seemed since everyone was 6 feet apart. We also recouped that time since there wasn’t a line at check-out. They are no longer limiting the number of people, but we try to go early in the morning when it’s pretty empty.

After the uncertainty of those early days, we’ve settled into a fairly pleasant routine of obtaining our food and other supplies.

Getting alcohol has been a little trickier since Pennsylvania has strange and restrictive laws.

We had been getting our wine and liquor mostly through the state run Fine Wines and Good Spirits stores (note that it’s not “Excellent Wine and Great Spirits,” so some points for self-awareness). For a long time, the state run stores had been the only way to get wine or liquor, but in recent years, things have loosen up a bit, at least with wine. Getting beer, oddly, has always been easy.

At the start of the pandemic, the Fine Wine and Good Spirit stores were closed and their online store wasn’t robust enough to handle the demand of everyone trying to order.

Having lived in Nevada where wine and liquor is sold everywhere, it’s still hard to get my head around living someplace with state run wine and liquor stores.

Luckily, Holly again saved the day. She already had some wine being shipped from a couple of California vineyards and started ordering wine from the Plonk Wine Club which had been recommended by a friend and has generally been excellent.

More recently, we also started ordering from Naked Wines which doesn’t have a particularly wide selection but enough of one to help us keep well-stocked. Most of their wines are from California which works well for us. It’s less expensive than Plonk, and they ship quickly.

Part of the issue of living in Pennsylvania is that there are restrictions to having alcohol shipped. We’re lucky to have found places willing and able to work with the state bureaucracy and offer shipping to PA. We can order liquor from local distilleries but for anything else, we can only order from the state. Their online ordering is working these days but the selection of what they will ship is limited.

We have supplemented with the occasional trip to Jet Wine Bar which has long been one of our favorite places to go hang out, and they offer wine for takeout. We can order online and then just go pick it up.

We Miss Hanging Out at Jet Wine Bar
We Miss Hanging Out at Jet Wine Bar

Luckily, getting beer isn’t as fraught as getting wine and liquor. We have a restaurant across the street that sells a limited selection of six-packs and plenty of other restaurants do the same. I recently joined the Craft Beer Club which has added some variety to our lives.

Holly and I have been pretty diligent about our self-isolation. We haven’t been inside any place other than our apartment, grocery store, or the pharmacy in over a year. We have poked our heads in places to pick up our food or wine orders but that just takes a minute. We haven’t taken advantage of any dining option either outdoors or limited indoor seating. We have gotten delivery and takeout.

Not having a car and avoiding public transportation means we have only gotten around on foot. We haven’t been more than about 3 miles from home since our Baltimore trip in October 2019.

Our chosen lifestyle has made getting through the pandemic a little difficult. When Holly and I had the opportunity to move to Philadelphia together, we decided we wanted to live in the city and not have a car. I have twice owned a house and twice hated it (although that may have had a lot more to do with the person I was sharing those houses with) so we wanted to start out in an apartment. Over 9 years later, we’re still in that same apartment which we love when there’s not a global pandemic.

For the first time since moving here, we wish we had a car. It would be nice to just take a drive somewhere even if we can’t get out and do anything. It would also be nice to drive to a park and be out in nature, unless there were too many people.

As much as I enjoy our apartment and city living, having a yard during these times would be wonderful. Just being able to sit outside when it’s nice out would provide quite a bit of relief.

It would also be helpful if we had space for some kind of proper desk set-up. We mostly work from our kitchen table which hasn’t been the most comfortable situation. We bought lap desks so we can more easily work from our sofa, and I’ve recently taken to using the higher part of our kitchen counter as a standing desk.

Our apartment building has a mailroom which is a big plus. We don’t have to worry about people swiping our TP delivery!

I’m happy (and not at all surprised) to report that Holly and I have gotten along great through all this. We honestly enjoy each other’s company and have no issues working together at home. We’ve had the same approach to isolating so there has been no friction related to that. We enjoy cooking together and can engage with our own hobbies without disturbing the other.

One fun thing to come out of all this time at home has been the reintroduction of the Lord of the Rings deck building games into our lives.

I had gotten The Fellowship of the Ring game for us as a gift in 2013 and The Two Towers sometime not long after that. The games have not been available for quite some time so we had never gotten The Return of the King game until Holly was able to track down a reasonably priced one a few months ago on Ebay. We know the weekend has started when we settle in on a Friday night to enjoy some takeout and to play Fellowship. It seems like a small thing, but it really has helped us stay entertained during our self-isolation, especially during the winter when there were fewer opportunities to get out for walks.

I think when we look back at this time, playing these games will be one of the happier memories.

Creative Projects

If someone had told me I would have the opportunity to work from home for over a year, I would have thought that would have been a big boon for my creative projects. Although I have worked a little more on them than I probably would have otherwise, the change hasn’t been dramatic.

The past year has been so chaotic, stressful, and filled with uncertainties that it has often been difficult to concentrate on much. I did engage with my writing, drawing, and photography throughout this past year, but it has been hard attending to them in any consistent way.

Not only have the 530,000+ deaths weighed heavily but so have the police shootings and subsequent protests, the contentious election and the subsequent attack on the Capitol. The past year would have been difficult to endure even without a global pandemic and all the confusion and misinformation about it generated by the previous administration.

Maybe now that there is a new administration and multiple vaccines, things will start feeling less chaotic and disruptive, and I can take more advantage of working from home. I don’t have a commute which frees up some time and is also less draining. I probably won’t be going into work again until later in the summer so I still have a few months to capitalize on my current situation.

I did read more during our self-isolation, so there is that.

The Future

It feels safe to say the worst is over. People are getting vaccinated and warmer weather is around the corner. There is the threat that some variant could come along that could circumvent the vaccine. There is the likelier possibility that people will start letting their guards down given the perception that things are getting better. Back in July, hitting 60,000 cases a day was terrible news but now it’s good news. Either way, that’s still a lot of people.

Getting through the winter was rough given the darkness and the crappy weather. We were even more isolated during the winter so I’m certainly glad we have reached mid-March. Philadelphia has already had some spring-like weather, and we’ve already been able to get for some pleasant walks.

I seemed to have a good sense of the situation back at the six month point when I wrote:

Despite all the uncertainty, anxiety, and stress of the past 6 months, I’m feeling fairly optimistic about the long term (at least about the pandemic). It sounds like there will eventually be a vaccine, although I think it will be quite a while before we will reap the benefits of it. Even if there is an effective one by the end of the year, it will take a lot of time to produce and distribute enough of it to make a significant difference. I’m guessing it will be another year before a true transition to something like normal will happen.

And even after the vaccine, it’s going to take me a long time to feel confident and comfortable about resuming our usual activities. I’m going to assume it won’t be until 2022 until our life starts feeling normal again and will be pleasantly surprised if it happens sooner.

There was a vaccine by the end of the year, and the rollout has been slowly taking place since. Things have been moving exceptionally slowly here. Over a month ago, we registered with the city for a vaccination, and it took almost a month to just get a confirmation that we had done so. No word about actually scheduling an appointment. Because Holly and I work in higher education, we’re in group 1C, but they are still working their way through groups 1A and 1B. I hope the pace will pick-up, and we’ll be hearing soon about scheduling an appointment.

Despite the fact that we may be vaccinated by mid-year, I suspect I was right when I said it won’t be until 2022 when things even begin to feel like “normal.” The CDC still recommends wearing masks and social distancing unless you’re sure you’re with other vaccinated people.

Even if most restriction are lifted sometime late in the summer, I think it will take a while before Holly and I feel comfortable engaging in many of our usual activities. The though of sitting in a crowded restaurant or packed subway will take a long time to adjust to.

I imagine one of the first things we’ll try to do is go see my brother. Once we’re all vaccinated, we should all feel comfortable being in close proximity. If for any reason we don’t, he has a nice yard and a grill, so we can easily just hang out in the fresh air.

I think that once we’re vaccinated, Holly and I will feel fairly comfortable with outdoor dining. The aforementioned Jet Wine Bar has a nice and fairly new outdoor garden which we haven’t been to. I can see us spending some time there if we can find a time when it won’t be too crowded.

Some other thing might need to wait.

Going to a movie theater would give me pause. I’m curious what the situation will be for the next Philadelphia Film Festival which will be in October. They had an online and drive-in festival last year. Maybe by October, I’ll be OK with going to some movies, but it would be convenient if they did a mix of streaming and in-person screenings.

Getting comfortable with going to museums may take some time. I’m interested in the new Soutine / de Kooning Conversations in Paint exhibit at the Barnes Foundation. It runs through August so it’s encouraging to think that we may actually be able to go.

Going to a baseball game has the benefit of being outside but the downside of having 40,000 people.

We certainly miss traveling, but it will probably take quite some time before we’ll be ready to get on a plane again. We’ll need to figure out some trips that won’t involve flying to ease back into things.

Because of the office space I described above, our return to work will likely be a slow transition since it won’t be the best idea to have all those people in the same room in such close proximity.

I’m curious to see what changes we’ve made will stick after we get vaccinated and restrictions are lifted.

I imagine we would resuming going to the farmers market at least once in a while. Not having to go out early on Saturday mornings has been refreshing, but there are some things we do like getting from there. Philly Food Works is great, but they don’t have everything that’s available at the market. I can see us doing some combination of the two.

Having wine shipped to us and not needing to go to Fine Wines and Good Spirits has been enjoyable. We’ll probably still need to go there for our liquor but that will be a lot less frequent if we’re not getting wine as well.

We’ve only gotten the Craft Beer Club for three months so I’m not sure yet if that’s something that we’ll continue.

Despite whatever reservations I have about resuming some of these activities, I am getting restless and eager to get back “out there.” But for the time being, I’m just looking forward to getting the news that I can make an appointment for my first shot.

I’m just hoping I won’t have to write a Reaching 18 Months of Self-Isolation post.

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