Monday, August 29, 2022

Pandemic Retrospective, Part III of IV

November 2020 - January 2022

The rancid mayonnaise jar that was 2020 was coming to an end. After over 200 days in quarantine, I had a barely functional system for getting through each day. I devoted all of my energy towards supporting my family, doing great things at work, and "keeping the trains running on time" with very little in reserve for relaxation or personal growth. Life was monotonous and unsustainable, but none of our immediate family had gotten sick and vaccines were just over the horizon.

Just when I felt like I had a handle on quarantine and could breathe a little easier, my situation regressed. Rebecca became pregnant with Ian and was once again plagued with day-long morning sickness and no energy to spare. Meanwhile, I developed an annoying health issue that, while not serious, demanded daily oversight for nearly five months. The continued need to stretch thinner held me captive in survival mode. I felt like I was barely keeping it together with Scotch tape and sheer willpower.

The arrival of the earliest vaccines definitely improved our spirits. Rebecca received hers in January 2021 (Ian too, by the transitive property) and all of the grandparents were vaccinated by February. Shifting focus from protecting ourselves to protecting just Maia eliminated much of the mental load in navigating our strange new world. I finally got my own shot in April at a pop-up shot clinic in an abandoned mall anchor store, and I remember how efficient and positive my experience was. The overwhelming optimism, enthusiasm, and kindness demonstrated by an army of anonymous volunteers stands out in my memory in stark contrast to the manufactured conflicts and community fractures playing out in the news and on social media at the same time. I resolved to take full advantage of "The Grand Reopening" and put some positive energy of my own out into the world... just in time for Ian to be born.

Ian as an infant was a force of nature, always uncomfortably gassy and communicating at Broadway-worthy decibel levels, while constantly punctuating the nights with ovine bleats in his sleep that triggered the baby monitor even though he required no attention. He arrived 1 day before Rebecca's scheduled hospital visit, effectively canceling our plans to have a final date night to catch our breath. The summer of 2021 felt like a new quarantine purgatory -- while everyone else was out dancing at concerts and licking porous surfaces, we were doing the standard new baby routine of keeping Ian alive at home until he reached his traditional vaccine milestones. For us, whooping cough was a bigger deal than COVID. The world was open, even if we couldn't be.

We took a beach trip with our quarantine pod in August, when Ian was just 3 months old. This trip was probably more draining for me than any pandemic-related event beforehand. We chose Sandbridge to shave a couple hours off of our traditional Outer Banks trip, and then nullified that bonus with I-95 traffic and epic thunderstorms (8 hours down, 7 hours back). Ian cried all of the way there and all of the way back. I'm sure we did a lot of fun activities (Maia had her first milkshake and her first ice cream bar from an ice cream truck which we called "the music truck" all week long), but all I can remember is pacing around the beach house, day and night, with Ian in a sling while listening to the Fratellis and trying to get him to stop crying and go to sleep.

My own sleep quality declined in 2021 and mimicked a five-year-old cell phone battery: I'd go to bed every night near 0% and barely recharge up to 59% by morning before spending most of the day right around 25%. My alcohol consumption crept up steadily over this period too, going from a six-pack per week to two or three beers each evening. I was never alarmed about this because it was never about getting drunk or giving in to addictive behavior. I didn't drink irresponsibly or exceed my limits. I used drinking as a blatant, calculated crutch to stave off boredom and sameness, as if having a few interesting beers around to try (even gross IPAs and grosser sours) might make each day feel just a little bit different than the one before and after it.

Some nights, I couldn't sleep at all and would just lie awake thinking about our fractured society and wondering if there was anything I could be doing about it. While the spotlight shined brightly on our divisions and how striated the battle lines were, I was thinking more about how technology was pushing us towards these divisions for the sake of monetary engagement. I remember seeing friends abandoning other friends based on opinions without any question about whether those opinions were truly heartfelt or just swayed by secretive social media algorithms. I remember seeing people I worked with and respected Liking and Sharing aggressively divisive content on LinkedIn (completely unrelated to their actual jobs). It felt like social media was turning our society into a two-dimensional quilt where anything not on the Good side couldn't be anything but Evil, and I just wasn't okay with that. I burned a good amount of my limited energy on drafting and redrafting serious posts for Facebook at 3 AM. I hoped that staying active there (and posting lots of cute MaIan pictures) would outweigh the net negative value of the platform.

We tried one more outing in 2021, a retreat at a quaint resort in West Virginia that promised strict pandemic mitigations and delivered none. The staff tore off their masks as soon as they were out of the public eye, and other patrons privately heckled the few families, like ours, that still wore masks indoors. I remember walking across the idyllic mountain campus and hearing another family seriously discussing ivermectin as a COVID cure and comparing their veterinary sources that could procure it at a discount. I remember being one of just 3 families that ate all meals outside of the crowded dining hall, only for Maia to get stung over her eye by one of the many juice-loving hornets living on the hotel porches. (We ended up eating the rest of our meals alone in our stuffy hotel room).

Ultimately, I'm sad that I don't remember more of 2021. I look at photos from the period and remember moments rather than days. I wrote a weekly series of posts on this blog about raising Ian (the Battle Reports) and, until Rebecca pointed it out, I never realized that I was always focusing on the negative aspects of keeping him happy rather than the positive aspects of his awesome personality and unique energy. Not all of this was caused by the pandemic: when a virus-related quarantine overlaps with the birth of a newborn, it's hard to know whether practiced patterns of survival are necessary or just complacency. I recognized this in the final months of 2021, but lacked the energy to do any course correction.

Other posts in this series: Part I: Introduction | Part II: March - October 2020 | Part III: November 2020 - January 2022 | Part IV: February 2022 - Today, and Conclusion

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