Business Musings: Assessing Pandemic Damage (A Process Blog)

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I suspect spring in Las Vegas will always have reminders for me. In those first dark days of the pandemic, when we were wiping off our groceries and viewing our neighbors with great suspicion, when we were wearing cloth masks that were makeshift at best, and running out of toilet paper as well as hand sanitizer, I ran outdoors.

Very early in the morning, taking the stairs from our condo down to the street, actually crossing the street if I saw anyone at all. There was a group of us who were out at that time of day—a redheaded runner who lived on Fremont Street (and ran the same route, only going the opposite direction), a middle-aged woman who walked and was usually on the phone, and a man from my building who walked his three bulldogs every day at the same time.

We didn’t talk. We waved from a proper distance. All of us carried masks, but weren’t masked. We’d hastily put the mask on if someone came close. I actually wore a neck gaiter that I could pull up like a bandit.

This morning, I was sorting my clothes for the upcoming summer and found some cloth masks. I’d already noted last fall that I was unwilling to throw my cloth masks away, even though I haven’t worn any since late 2020. I’ve been wearing K95 when I need to wear masks.

I did stash the cloth masks, though. They’re in a bag I got from the musical Hadestown. I think that’s appropriate.

There are many things that remind me of that spring. Not people—I haven’t seen the first two from my early morning group since 2021. I see the neighbor often. I also see the spring changes.

Back then, I would run, and later in the day, Dean and I would walk, around the neighborhood. We looked at little round cacti that got their spring growth (and sometimes bloomed). At the pollen that littered the street three blocks down. At the spring flowers that had a moment just before the summer heat crushed them.

The neighborhood is different now—there’s been a lot of building and remodeling and growth—but some of those pockets remain. And at this time of year, the sight of those things immediately sends me back to those fearful days.

I like to think I got through them pretty well. I was as realistic about the pandemic as I could be. My history background both informed me and worried me. Dean stopped asking me when I thought the pandemic part would end because my answer was always, Give it three years. That’s when the pandemic started waning in the 1920s.

Here we are, three years later. Yes, I know, dear readers, COVID-19 is still with us. Friends have had it all through the fall and winter. A friend just had a bout last week. If I log onto Facebook, I see even more friends who are suffering with the virus, even if they’re vaccinated. That disease is pernicious and it wants to infect us all.

I suspect that by the end of this decade, it will have infected us all. It will then become one of those rounds of viruses that we deal with each and every year. It’s moving into that category.

But guessing the timeline accurately didn’t make it any easier to go through those years. All that death. I still don’t want to total up the losses in my life. I’m sure everyone who is reading this blog has had similar experiences.

It will take a long time for all of the data to be absorbed and analyzed. It’s just starting now.

For example, Markus Brauer, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison teamed up with professors from the School of Journalism and Communication on a study conducted in the early days of the pandemic. The results were published recently.

It found that “higher media consumption—seeking out the news—was associated with more emotional distress.”  I read an article about it in the University of Wisconsin alumni magazine, On Wisconsin, and had a visceral reaction:

I wasn’t extremely emotionally distressed.

Denial much?

I even had trouble getting through the article. Then I found this paragraph:

The study doesn’t allow for causal conclusions. While it is likely that seeking out news updates about the pandemic led to emotional distress, according to Brauer, it is also possible that people who are distressed try to manage their emotions by checking the news more often.

The second half of that paragraph describes me and my coping mechanism. When I’m upset, I seek information. The more information I have, the calmer I become.

Although I doubt I was calm after March of 2020. I doubt I was calm for years.

I put my head down and launched right back into what Dean and I call “Lincoln City Think.” I had been so sick and trapped up in Oregon, barely able to leave the house most of the time, that I had figured out coping mechanisms to get through the day. (You can find some of those in my book Writing With Chronic Illness.)

I knew how to survive minute to minute, hour to hour. I also knew how to calm myself in moments of political stress (which we had an abundance of in the U.S. that year). I had been a reporter for a reason. When something goes haywire, I seek information. I look for causes and solutions. I gather data. I check the data to see if it changed overnight.

I am very aware of these habits and actively sought them out.

What I didn’t realize was the impact this all had on my fiction writing and reading. I noted a few things. Such as…I couldn’t read romance novels at all. A part of me no longer believed anyone would ever get a happily ever after. I didn’t want to read certain types of mysteries either, because they were distressing.

Science fiction and fantasy provided a lot of escape, but I have a problem with those genres. My years as an editor made me highly critical of them, so I needed to approach them sideways—trying not to look too hard at what the author was doing.

I defaulted in my reading to a lot of favorite authors because I knew I’d get a reliable read. That was helpful, but my reading declined and as it did, so did my writing.

Or so I thought.

What really changed was this: I had become what I call outer-directed. When I’m threatened or in crisis, I focus on what’s around me, not on what’s inside me. I can’t get lost in a made-up world, because that’s just too dangerous. I don’t dare go through this world with blinders on. Something even worse might happen.

I struggled and wrote and read what I could. I found other things to focus on, though. Writing and reading didn’t give me an escape, but learning Spanish did. It took concentration and felt like I was feeding that outer-directed part of myself.

That lead me to taking school (which was online at that point) too seriously, something I had to work my way out of last fall. I am not a young student with a bright future ahead of her. I really don’t need these classes. They’re for me. So I don’t need to be anal about it, and I don’t need straight As. I’m taking classes for myself, not to get a career or figure out my future. I’m there to learn, and, sometimes, to have fun.

During lockdown, I had to start running in the mornings, which took my best writing time, because the gyms were closed. Those morning runs became a lifeline. I met a lot of (properly distanced) Las Vegans on those mornings—everyone from the security guards at a parking garage (imagine that job) to the street vendors who slowly returned to Fremont. There are a lot of people who glue Las Vegas together in the hours before 7 a.m, people you don’t see later in the day.

I was out there with them, earlier and earlier, because it gets so damn hot here, and no way in hell was I going to the gym and trying to exercise masked among people who felt they didn’t need to follow the rules. (Yes, it was that bad, even into late 2021.)

There were highlights. The people, as I mentioned. I actually could get to the local donut shop that closed every morning around 10 because they were sold out. They even reserved donuts for me every week, because they knew I’d come in.

I ignored the impact on my writing. I figured I was slow because I didn’t have enough time or because of school or because I was exhausting myself with exercise (another way to cope).

I didn’t realize just how much of myself I had shut down until the pieces started resurfacing. I started reading mystery again—difficult mysteries about difficult topics—last fall. I stopped doom-scrolling in early 2022, and now check notifications only when I’m on a break. I’ve even gotten rid of a lot of notifications because I don’t need to be that vigilant.

I walked into a crowd a few weeks ago and didn’t feel like I had done something wrong. It actually helped to get sick with a cold/flu thing last fall because I had to get through all those oh-crap-what-did-I-do-wrong? emotions that were somehow tied to wiping off my groceries and wearing gloves everywhere.

I’m swimming again, and I didn’t even worry about getting in the pool until much later when I realized what post-pandemic me had done.

And lately—really, three years almost to the day after the pandemic shutdown—I finally started getting lost for hours in my writing, instead of for short bursts.

Emotional distress? You betcha, sweetie. I was not a happy camper. Was any one of us? We all coped in our own ways, and many of us are still coping.

I’m not at all angry at myself for the lost time and the lost days and the worry that came from all of it. I learned long ago about the truth in that saying misattributed to Winston Churchill: If you’re going through hell, keep going.

I’ve done that many times in my life. Head down, body hunched, moving forward because going back won’t get me out. Nothing will except the march of days.

I’ve reclaimed a lot of things, and I’m slowly putting things in perspective. I’m slowly getting rid of pandemic habits.

At Dean’s suggestion, I stopped running in the morning. It took weeks for that to ease out of my life: I felt like I was doing something wrong.

I’m a morning writer, though, so getting my mornings back was heavenly and enabled me to triple my output.

I felt—still feel, sometimes—like I’m no longer getting enough exercise, even though I did my first (micro-mini) triathlon in March. Yep, I’m exercising still, but it’s not a focus.

The fiction writing is.

I’m getting slow again on email (a feature of fiction writing). I’m solidly unavailable until I get my words done, and I’m back defending that vigorously. A little part of myself stood to one side and watched with amusement as a podcaster tried to convince me to do an interview with his millions of listeners…before noon my time.

Nope, no, not doing it. And I was forceful about it too. Thank heavens the exchange was in email because I was really pushing back hard. I might’ve insulted the guy in person—not because he was pushy (although he was) but because I had finally found my space again and I was going to defend it no matter what.

I’ve relaxed my stance on school so much that I skipped a class for the first time in more than 40 years because I really didn’t want to do what was scheduled that day. I would never have done that in the height of the (Zoom) pandemic. I even “attended” class the day after I got my first Covid vaccine…and fell asleep in front of my computer.

Best of all, though?

Ideas are coming in a way that I can easily access them. I wrote a lot during the pandemic, but it was in fits and bursts and it often felt like I was sneaking time away from valuable survival practices.

Now I’m getting deep into what I’m doing. Multiple files are open all the time. Sticky notes grace my desk in a constructive way, not in a don’t forget to do this kinda way.

It feels good.

I’m not all the way back, though. I’ve spent a goodly part of 2023 figuring out what the pandemic habits I’ve adopted are, and whether or not they’re worth keeping.

I’ve been changing most of them, but some of them remain in my closet with the masks, stored in a Hadestown bag in case some other emergency arises.

I know those masks are useless and ridiculous. I just can’t part with them yet. I suspect they’re a metaphor for other habits I have yet to discover or acknowledge.

I’ll get there.

We are now in that new world I knew was coming after the crisis hit in 2020. I knew (and blogged about) the fact that we could never go back to the world we had in 2019.

We still can’t, although we can reclaim a lot of we lost.

A lot of what we have is new, though. Being in class with kids who lost at least a year of in-person schooling has been an eye-opener.  It took me a while when in-person classes resumed in the Fall of 2021 to realize that my fellow Spanish students weren’t weird; they just weren’t used to being out in the world. They had lost a lot of social skills or never really had the opportunity to learn them.

Their generation will carry these scars into a future the rest of us can’t fathom yet.

We’re seeing an impact of that pandemic hole in our lives in a myriad of ways. I’ll be blogging about some of it in future pieces because the pandemic hastened some long-overdue changes in entertainment.

Some of us are farther along the recovery path than others. I watched with something like surprise as we’ve greeted visitors to Vegas, friends who admitted they had barely left the house in three years.

I was out of our place every day, walking and waving and seeing people (from a distance). It’s hard to avoid others when you live in a building with 300+ units and four elevators. So when another friend admitted they hadn’t been on an elevator in three years and was terrified to be that close to people, I had to reassess my assumptions. Some people are just now moving forward, and others haven’t even left their neighborhood yet.

We’re all assessing our pandemic damage. We not only have to figure out what it is, but how much effort we’re going to put into fixing it. We changed not just habits during the pandemic, but our entire lifestyles. In some ways, we changed. Period.

The question we all have is whether or not we want to rebuild or if we want to build anew.

And I don’t think that’s a global question. It’s a habit-by-habit, detail-by-detail question.

Yeah, I’ll bet most of us have stopped wiping off our groceries. But I suspect each one of us has a stupid pandemic habit that we’re not willing to part with yet…if ever.

Because it comforts us.

Like those masks in the closet.

Maybe they’re not being saved for a rainy day. Maybe they’re there as a reminder of what we’ve—what I’ve — been through. A reminder that I might not need after a few more springs.

Maybe, one day, the blooming cacti will be reminder enough.

Maybe, one day, I will go through a spring without remembering 2020 at all.

I’m hoping so.

Because I’m not just ready to move forward. I am moving, discarding one no-longer-necessary pandemic coping mechanism at a time.

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“Business Musings: Assessing Pandemic Damage,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2023 by  Kristine K. Rusch

 

6 thoughts on “Business Musings: Assessing Pandemic Damage (A Process Blog)

  1. My emergency response to the pandemic had thrown me back to my Cold War ear childhood. The idea of knowing there are things I can control with a bit of preparation had comforted me back then and knowing what to do comforts me to this day. I wouldn’t consider myself a prepper, but I think certain adaptations to possible threats are only sensible. Extra TP and non-perishable stapes in the pantry, bottled water, and so on.
    The vestigial remnants of the pandemic consist of a bidet in the upstairs bathroom and a basket of washable wiping towels – those stay. The reused spray bottle full of soapy water had been useful for decontaminating perishable groceries in the sink – and it stays too, as it’s handy for quick clean-ups. We still mask in certain crowds, I use my gym’s app to look at their current occupancy and avoid their busy times.
    I’m rebuilding my writing and publishing habits. It’s a slog, but the Decade Ahead class is solid gold and Dean’s insane “match my word count” challenge was just what I needed to get unstuck. I updated my website and am slowly adding to it while publishing a free story every Friday. It’s almost May and it took since last November to find a rhythm that seems to work for me.
    Still…everything will work out.

  2. I’ve always been a hugger, and it broke something in me to stop that impetus even before it was born. Reading this post through tears, I didn’t realise how much I missed that broken bit … I don’t know when or even if, I’ll mend those broken ends, but I’m old enough to know that if I don’t keep trying, I’ll never mend ’em.

  3. I feel like I’m finally coming up to breathe this year as well. My dad is a critical care doctor and the hardest part of the whole thing was watching what it did to him. He retired two years early because of it. He’s still recovering from the exhaustion and the 18 hour days and losing patients the same age as his children. He’ll be 67 this summer the pandemic cost him his love of being a medical detective.

    I was also thrown by the worst hurricane hit ever to my area of Louisiana. In many ways we’re still recovering almost three years later. I still haven’t finished writing the novel I started in 2020. Part of it is because I purposely gave up my writing time (I’m an evening writer) to spend time with my sister and my toddler niece while they were here for a year. They live overseas, in a culture I can’t visit because of fragrance allergies. Something I’m glad you at least understand. The writing will always be there for me. Being my niece’s fourth favorite person in the whole entire world when she’s two will never come again.

    My reading habits didn’t change because I’m a dyed in the wool romance reader with a side of straight historical. Though I did solemnly swear never to read Caleb Carr again in August and September. because we Gulf Coast natives have our little hurricane superstitions. I never wiped down groceries or went overboard on hand sanitizer because covid is a respiratory virus and I listened to my dad the expert on preventing infection with respiratory viruses.

    It was only this January that the desire to write started coming back. Along with the realization it’s finally time to go back to my original genre of historical fiction with romantic elements. I’m a Russian historian and I’ve spent the last 14 months realizing I missed a staggering number of important developments and I’ve been catching up. Writing about my chosen time period has exploded in the last 10 years and research has gotten so much easier.. I have an awful lot to say about how Russia became who they are now. I say it best through fiction.

  4. I know what you mean about the romance, Kristine. Most of my stories have some…and the only thing I wrote during the worst of the pandemic had the romance die at the end of the short story. I got up and wrote the story in one day, made the trailer, felt bad about the ending, and wrote a sequel short story the next day. I didn’t want it to end like that…I guess that was my attempt to combat the way things were. I acknowledged it, then I changed what I could. Not many people buy these stories, but I’m still glad I wrote them.

  5. Spot on commentary as always.

    I think there’s a spectrum when it comes to pandemic response. On one end you have the people who thought it was a hoax and went out of their way to do absolutely nothing but put themselves and others in danger, and all the way on the other end you have the folks too afraid to leave their homes for an entire year. I think most folks fall somewhere in the middle. I, for example, wore masks, but I never wiped off my groceries, though I’m not in the at-risk age range like you and Dean.

    I’ve never had the virus. My wife has had it twice and was asymptomatic both times, but I’m fairly confident I’ll get some version of it sooner or later. One day, when I’m old enough and have enough cumulative damage from living life, an iteration of it might even figure out how to kill me. That’s life, I guess.

    Anyway, great points. I’ve gone through similar and I’m finally coming out the other end, and I can attest it does feel good. Great, even.

  6. The one thing I can’t let go of and I don’t know if I ever will and that is hand sanitizer. It will always be with me. It’s in our vehicles and the stores still have it for you to use and I use it.

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