The Corona Diaries – Part One

If someone had asked a few years ago when I was an exhausted stressed-out worker bee, if I would like a couple of months off, to read, write and catch up on sleep, I would have thought it was the most amazing gift.  But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for….

Now that I’m retired and used to staying home more, my current COVID existence isn’t as dramatically different as it might be for someone accustomed to being out and about every day.   I’m coping okay so far – reading, writing, blogging, cooking, exercising, checking on my mother – but at seven weeks into lock-down, even the most contented of homebodies, may be starting to develop some degree of cabin fever. 

A friend suggested I keep a diary to record this tumultuous time.  I haven’t so far, but as my blogging topics seem to have dwindled to books and baking, (and even baking is on shaky ground now that the grocery shelves are empty of flour), perhaps a few observations about life in COVID Country might be in order.

Wheat field two (2)

A wheat field can be a beautiful thing……maybe I could grind my own flour?

And speaking of the country, it’s much easier to social distance in a rural environment than in a densely populated city like Toronto.  Our cases here in Canada reflect that, as the link below shows, with the more rural provinces, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the islands PEI and Newfoundland having far fewer cases than more densely populated Ontario and our pandemic hot spot Quebec.  As well as having more people, these provinces are home to two large international airports.  PEI and New Brunswick have had no deaths.  Saskatchewan and Manitoba have had only 6 each and have scheduled a staged re-opening.  

Link to Canada’s Pandemic Map.

As a country of 37 million, we have 62,000 cases and 4000 deaths (as of today May 6).   Locally, we’ve had 189 reported cases and 14 deaths, but none since April 20, out of a population base of about 100,000.   Forty of those cases and six deaths came from the same upscale retirement home, where a resident who was in contact with a church group which had traveled to Europe in March, is thought to be the seed case.   The situation in some of the nursing homes in Quebec and Ontario is so out of control that last week the government called in the army to help feed and care for residents in some the worst hit homes.  I’m extremely grateful my 94 year old mother is still living in her own home, and has her painting hobby to keep her busy. 

Was it only last summer we went to see The Tall Ships?  Who would think we would now be in such uncharted territory, trying to navigate this strange new world, where unknown danger lurks in every grocery store.  Well, you get the picture…

The Tall Ships - AMc - 2020

My mother has been painting ships.

Of course, there are things I miss – socializing, eating in restaurants, shopping.   We finally got a Homesense and Marshalls here, set to open the end of March, and I drove by it the other day and mourned all the unseen merchandise sitting there behind locked doors.  (And yes I know it’s selfish and shallow to be thinking about this when so many people are wondering how to pay their bills, but I’m thinking it all the same because shopping can be a pleasant distraction, even if you’re just looking at all the lovely things, and a little retail therapy may help to restart the economy).   By the time it’s open will we even need spring clothes….summer clothes….or will we be back into fall?    Let’s face it, we know we won’t be getting out of this any time soon.   It will be a summer of no music, art, or food festivals.  The local theater season and Canada Day celebrations have been cancelled, even the fall fairs are on hold, and if and when things do open up, will we be brave enough to go out or will we have developed agoraphobia?

Of course we can take solace in nature,

Daffodils

Even the daffodils are looking dejected….

but even your own backyard can get a little claustrophobic after awhile, especially in the hot hazy days of summer when you might wish for a cold dip in the lake.

sailboat race

Something to look forward to…

I’m also looking forward to gardening season and planting a Victory garden, especially the fresh lettuce.

romaine lettuce

Although it’s nice to have the time to do all the things you always said you’d do when you had the time……what if you don’t feel like doing them?   I have not yet resorted to spring cleaning my house – it’s dusty and the windows need cleaning but it’s still too cold outside for that.   The deck needs hosing down and while the patio furniture is out, no one has sat in it, as the whole month of April held hardly a day over 50 F.   The cool weather has extended into May with more of the same, and we may even have wet snow on Friday.    Some sunshine would be enormously cheerful.     

blue forget me nots

The pretty blue forget-me-nots are out.

I spend a lot more time on the phone these days.  In fact, I haven’t talked this much on the phone since high school, when those princess phones were all the rage….

Princess-Telephone

Sadly, I’ve also become a News Addict.  I always watched the 6pm local news, but now I must watch the 11pm National news too, and check the online paper and social media during the day for constant COVID updates.   No wonder so many of us are having COVID nightmares.   While we can distract ourselves during the day with activities, at night our brains are trying to process this constant bombardment of new information.  

I need to tune out and go back to reading before bed.  I’m thinking there may be an e-reader in my future, even though too much screen time makes my eyes sore.   I’m slowly working my way through those 18 books from the bookoutlet in January, but they’re all non-fiction and I’m dying for a good  distracting novel.   I’m hoping the library will be on the list of first places to open, that and hair salons.  (If you saw last weeks post on pandemic bangs, you’ll know why).  

My daily routine still includes mascara and under-eye concealer (otherwise I resemble a raccoon), clean but comfy clothes, and hair washed at least every 3 days.  I will not succumb to sloth….. 

I’ve been walking every day, missing just two in the past month – one where I did a 4-hour-2-grocery store marathon (does pushing an overloaded cart count for building arm muscles?) and one so windy with flurries that I just could not (April 21 – this is spring?).   There’s really no excuse not to now, as it gets me out of the house and into the fresh air.   Exercise also helps me sleep better, so I have more energy during the day to do nothing.  Plus, as I usually walk around my subdivision, I’ve met more of my neighbors, including several I worked with years ago who I never knew lived nearby.   It’s too bad we can’t have a proper visit, as we’re all social distancing of course.   

I cook more, spend less on food and eat better.   I wonder how many families have discovered just how much money can be saved by eating at home, saving restaurants for an occasional treat and not a regular occurrence.

Shrimp and Scallop Pasta

Shrimp and scallop pasta

While many of my daily routines may be the same, other things just seem bizarre – but bizarre is now the new normal.

In the past month I’ve been to the grocery store twice, the bank once, the full-service-no-way-am-I-touching-the-pumps-gas station once, and one restaurant for takeout.   The car was sluggish so I drove to the nearest city for the takeout, as it needed a good run and we were craving Swiss Chalet (rotisserie chicken).

Usually I enjoy grocery shopping, but am finding it stressful now that it’s become a marathon event.   I have a master list, written in order of location as with most of the aisle exits blocked off and one-way arrows on the floor, the grocery store has become a maze.   If you forget the butter, you don’t want to have to backtrack to dairy through the whole store.    My cart is loaded with enough “provisions” as my dad used to call them, for two houses for 3 weeks.   I find the customers polite and patient, but some of the staff are kind of rude.   One store is very lax, a box of gloves at the entrance if you want, and social distancing stickers on the floor, Plexiglas for the cashiers, but otherwise you’re on your own.  They trust you know how to behave like a responsible adult.   At the other store, it’s command central – the deli workers are now the traffic cops at the front entrance, barking orders right and left.   They even have a portable hand wash stand outside the store.   I was told (and not very nicely), that my own disposable gloves could have COVID germs on them and could not be worn inside, I had to use theirs.  I always try to pick the line with the nicer cashiers.   Nice people tend to stay nice in a crisis, but stress can bring out the worse in the others.  

I don’t know how they decide these things but at my mother’s bank I had to stand in the vestibule, while the people accessing the ATM machine walked right by me, closely by me.   Only one person was allowed in the bank at a time.   When it was my turn, I was escorted in by the normally cheerful teller, who was obviously tired of explaining the procedure.   My bank had a better set-up, kind of like a dance routine.    The teller stands back six feet behind the plexiglass while you step up and enter your pin, then you step back six feet to the spot on the floor and let her do her stuff on the computer, then she steps back again and you step forward to take your paper.   Normally I do online banking, but Income Tax was due, (Death and Taxes being the only two certainties in life).     

I’m grateful not to be working despite those emails from the college asking if I would like to reinstate my license to help out, just send $2000 and an application form.   No thanks – I’ve done my time.   My immune system is not great, I need to stay healthy to look after my mother and when I got H1N1 (2009 swine flu) I don’t recall anyone serenading me from their balcony for my months of service.   All I remember is the complaints –  we were so swamped with Tamiflu prescriptions coming in from ER that we couldn’t get to the regular work and there was no backup staff to call in, or even any backup plan or any masks or PPE at all, which is how I got H1N1 when someone coughed in my face.   And BTW, Tamiflu, which had to be started within the first 48 hours, only shortened the duration by a day or two, it was NOT a cure, although the government was happy to provide it free to everyone and their dog.   I don’t remember ever been scared to go to work though, as it was not as contagious or as deadly (only 428 deaths in all of Canada).    My colleagues now are dealing with complaints about the 30 day limit, instituted to preserve the supply chain but in the process tripling their workload, and trying to source back-ordered drugs such Ventolin, insulin and sedatives used in ventilated patients.   If the wholesaler only sends you two when you ordered twenty, how do you decide who to give it to?   Did I mention I’m glad I’m retired?     

Like everyone else, I’m grateful for all the dedicated medical and front line workers, especially the highly trained doctors and nurses who are risking their lives fighting this beast.   But I’d also like to include the unsung heroes who never get mentioned, like respiratory therapists, X-ray technicians and the hospital cleaning staff.   Recently our provincial premier announced a $4/hour pandemic wage increase for front line health care workers and yes, he forgot the respiratory therapists and the paramedics, two groups with the highest exposure.   I also worry about the people not getting needed surgery or treatments and those too afraid to go to the ER when they need help.     

I’m not surprised many of the nursing homes are struggling with not having enough personal support workers.   It’s a chronically understaffed, unappreciated job of mostly part-time hours.   Most homes are privately owned and don’t pay full time benefits, so they wonder how it spread from place to place?   The government enforced the one worker/one home rule way too late, the damage was already done.  The sheer number of deaths in long term care institutions has been a national tragedy, a wake-up call about a system which has been underfunded and understaffed for a long time.  (While PSW’s here make from $18-23/hr, the minimum wage in Ontario is $14/hr, and $18 is considered a living wage).     

Of course I’m lucky to be retired, and not to have lost a job.   But I wonder if this isn’t a bit of a wake-up call regarding the debt levels in our society, about having it all when you really can’t afford it.   Needs vs wants.  Living within your means.   The old standard financial advice about having 3 to 6 months savings set aside for emergencies.  And I’m not talking about the working poor who live paycheck to paycheck and can never get ahead, but middle class workers with good jobs, nice houses, new cars, annual vacation trips,  who drink $5 lattes everyday but have zero savings.  But then maybe I’m old-fashioned and grew up in a different era where credit wasn’t as easily available.  Having lived through a few recessions makes you wiser.

We’re lucky to have more social safety nets here in Canada, as well as free health care.   Not just Unemployment Insurance, but a Canadian Emergency Response Benefit of  $2000/month for 4 months, which was set up in April for those laid off as the UI department could not process the number of claims in a timely fashion.  Every day our prime minister comes out of his house (where he’s been self-isolating for well over 6 weeks now as his wife tested positive), and announces another plan – the Wage Subsidy plan for business – government will pay 75% of salaries if they keep employees on up to $847 per week per employee – money for students unable to find summer jobs ($1250/month, $1750 if they have dependents, $5000 if they volunteer for a charity or do farm work) – an increase in GST and child tax credits – loans of up to $40,000.   Last week he announced they’ll be paying 75% of the rent for small businesses and also helping charities with rent who have had to postpone their fundraisers.  What will be next – subsidizing Girl Guide cookies?   While many small restaurants and shops with short cash flow may need immediate relief, other larger, more established, profitable businesses may be able to ride it out for a few months, especially if they don’t want to lose their valued employees.  (The employees at my bank said no one had been laid off, and all continue to be paid for full time hours even if their hours have been reduced).   It might have been prudent for the government to see how many people and businesses actually required help at this early stage, before making such broad based decisions.   Note the Depression went on for a whole decade of poverty and unemployment – is a few months of restrained spending worth a $300 billion bailout, even if unemployment  temporarily increases from 5% to 9%?   Many recessions over the past 30 years had at least that amount, and they all bounced back.      

Lately I’ve been thinking about John F. Kennedy’s famous speech – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

While there have already been reports of abuse of the programs, (such as people enrolling their kids in the student aid program who have never worked a day in their lives), there are also those who always step up to help out.   When essential charities like the food-bank sent out a request for help, people were quick to respond.  Some health care workers are donating their bonus pay.   When the Toronto Zoo asked for help feeding the animals for six months the public donated $500,000 far in excess of the $100,000 they actually needed.   These were all public or corporate donations.  

And then there’s the CFL  – The Canadian Football League who asked the government for a $150 million handout as the football season will be cancelled, although they would settle for $30 million if it’s only delayed, not a loan mind you, no plan or promises to pay it back.   Does anyone even watch Canadian Football?   Every sports team with lost ticket revenue is waiting with baited breath to see what the answer will be…    

While all these government programs may be a necessary and welcome thing, I’m wondering who’s going to be paying for it all?   My dim recollection of Economics 101 is that you can’t just keep printing money, but maybe things have changed?   Many people don’t seem to get the connection between all the freebies and income tax.   Of course these are extraordinary circumstances, but we’re already a highly taxed nation with a high national debt load and saddling the next generation with even more debt isn’t exactly fair.   The millennials already resent us enough…(they think we had it easy, we didn’t – we just had less stuff), maybe they’d be happy to see a few of us die off.   While it may be popular to bash baby boomers, most of us didn’t start out with expensive houses either.  There was a thing called a Starter Home, a modest bungalow, and once it was paid for then you traded up.   (There was also a Starter Car – something second hand, fixed up).   Should I feel sorry for a double income couple living in a mansion who now can’t make their sky high mortgage payments?   While you might think I’m lacking in sympathy, I grew up on the poorer side of middle class, so if you’ve not had money, you’re more appreciative of  the safety net of having some in the bank for a rainy day….or a hurricane.  

One permanent outcome of this pandemic might be that people will reassess their current lifestyles and spending limits.  Will they be happier with less money but more family time?  Will working from home become the new norm?  How much stuff is really truly essential? 

It can be interesting observing people’s reactions to this crisis.   There are those who are carrying on as if everything is the same, the ostriches who seem oblivious and never turn on the news, (including the poor old man at Walmart who thought there was a sale on TP, and when told about the virus, asked if diarrhea was a symptom), the angry deniers proclaiming this is all a hoax, the protesters screaming about their rights and freedoms, and the Short-Fuse Freds who are always in a bad mood and take it out on anyone and everyone who will listen.

Our own opinions of the crisis can change over time.   Is the elderly lady with the shopping cart full of ten loaves of bread and 3 frozen apple pies, a hoarder?  In the early days, back when we thought this was just a two week quarantine, I might have said yes, but now – no – she’s just shopping for the neighbors in her seniors building.    Not sure about those pies though, they’re not good at the best of times, let alone for a Pie Pity Party. 

Older people who have the life experience of living through the Great Depression, WW2, rationing, outbreaks of scarlet fever and polio, a couple of recessions, double digit inflation and stock market crashes – have seen and survived a lot.   It seems horribly unfair that they are now dying in  nursing homes without a loved one there with them.   I feel sad for little children also, and hope their parents are able to maintain some sense of normalcy for them in these scary times.

The good news is – we’re not all going to hell for missing mass on Sunday.  The Bishop said so in the parish email cancelling all church services when “he granted the faithful dispensation from their Sunday obligation.”  Is there a Catholic alive who still believes this?   I hope they eliminate that hand shaking bit at the end permanently, worse germ spreader ever.

Even those of us who are introverts and prefer a quiet life, are in need of  some social interaction other than Zoom.   In the early days before the lock-down, I managed to avoid a screening of Parasite with subtitles, as the 300 seat theater just might be a breeding ground for the virus.   Now, with everything closed, you don’t have to make those excuses er…..decisions!  But on the flip side, we also don’t have anything to look forward to.   I’m wondering how I’ll feel after another month or two of this…and when things do open up, will the constant fear of catching it, be worse than staying home and being safe but bored.

I’ve been watching a new CTV series Transplant. – about a Syrian doctor transplanted to a Canadian ER, a world of contrast between a modern hospital and one in a war zone.   I’m also watching World on Fire – a British miniseries about WW2.   Although we may be at war with this horrible virus, we’re not in a war zone.  It’s all about perspective.  This too shall pass.   Just like Columbus, we need patience and perseverance to steer the course.  Calmer seas are ahead.  

The Tall Ships - AMc - 2020

PS.  If you have your health, and food and shelter, family and friends,  sprinkled liberally with books, music and nature – then you have everything you need.

PS.  My apologies for the length…..if anyone’s still reading.  Hopefully there won’t be Part Two.    I’ll leave you with an oldie but goodie…

Song of the Day:  Duke Ellington – Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

 

 

 

The Literary Salon – On Edge

On Edge - book - Andrea Petersen

We’re all on edge these days.   We live in anxious times and the new worries associated with COVID-19 have made things much worse in a very short period of time.   It seems only yesterday that life was normal and going to a store or restaurant wasn’t a dangerous activity which could cost you your life.   I drafted this blog a month ago before the current crisis exploded, but perhaps it is even more timely today.   This months’ literary pick is by Andrea Petersen, a Wall Street Journal reporter, who has lived with chronic anxiety her entire life.  

On Edge: A Journey Through AnxietyOn Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety by Andrea Petersen

 

 

 

The Publisher’s Blurb:

A celebrated science and health reporter offers a wry, honest account of living with anxiety.

A racing heart. Difficulty breathing. Overwhelming dread. Andrea Petersen was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at the age of twenty, but she later realized that she had been experiencing panic attacks since childhood. With time her symptoms multiplied. She agonized over every odd physical sensation. She developed fears of driving on highways, going to movie theaters, even licking envelopes. Although having a name for her condition was an enormous relief, it was only the beginning of a journey to understand and master it—one that took her from psychiatrists’ offices to yoga retreats to the Appalachian Trail.

Woven into Petersen’s personal story is a fascinating look at the biology of anxiety and the groundbreaking research that might point the way to new treatments. She compares psychoactive drugs to non-drug treatments, including biofeedback and exposure therapy. And she explores the role that genetics and the environment play in mental illness, visiting top neuro-scientists and tracing her family history—from her grandmother, who, plagued by paranoia, once tried to burn down her own house, to her young daughter, in whom Petersen sees shades of herself.

Brave and empowering, this is essential reading for anyone who knows what it means to live on edge.

About the Author:    Andrea Petersen is a contributing writer at The Wall Street Journal, where she reports on psychology, health and travel.  During her 18 years as a staff reporter and editor at the Journal, Andrea has covered a wide variety of beats including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and aging.    On Edge – A Journey Through Anxiety is her first book.

Why I Liked It:

This was one of my bookoutlet bargains, an online site where you can spend hours just browsing, and in this case I was trying to get my basket to $100 so I could get $40 off.   Certainly I’ve known and counselled many patients about the benefits and side effects of the drugs which are often prescribed in the treatment of anxiety, but I’ve never read a memoir about what it’s like to live with it day after day, so I found this book to be an interesting read. 

While most of us think of anxiety as a sporadic or episodic condition associated with a specific event, (like COVID-19), this book delves into what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety disorder.  Patients with.generalized anxiety disorder worry even if there isn’t anything concrete to worry about, as the mind of a patient struggling with GAD can always find something to catastrophize about!   Despite her many low points, the author has led a very successful life,  although her boss at the Wall Street Journal was unaware of her struggles until the book was about to be published.  Worriers can often excel at masking their condition.  She was also fortunate in having a supportive family and friends who understood her condition.   I liked how the author’s history was woven into the various chapters on drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy, research and genetics, so it was a personal story and not just a recounting of scientific research. 

The fight or flight heightened response is an evolutionary adaptation for survival, left over from the caveman days, when our worries were of sabre-toothed tigers and where to find the next meal.   While we in modern times may have new and different things to worry about, like is it safe to go to the grocery store, it’s amazing how adaptable the human mind can be to the new normal, and how it can rise above a current catastrophe and find a way forward.    Something to remember in these, the worst of times.   

PS.   There are many non-drug coping mechanisms that can help soothe an anxious mind and stop the cycle, number one of which is distraction.    Keeping your mind occupied with something creative can be a wonderful distraction, and if you can’t shut your mind off at night, then I find getting up and reading to be a good activity, preferably a non-fiction book.    Basically, any mindless activity such as gardening, painting or reorganizing something is also wonderfully blissful.  What is your coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety in these crazy times?