Chances are good that if you read this blog, you know me. I’m not famous or influential. So, maybe you know this whole story. Maybe you know parts. Maybe we’re old high school or college buddies and you saw the smallest of snippets of my life during the Pandemic and clicked it for the lulz (spoiler: not a lot of lulz in this story). So, why retread a story you knew? My wife asked me this and it bears asking. Here’s the answer:
Because I have to.
I couldn’t fully engage with my creativity for over two years of my life. The Muse is fickle on the best of days for most creatives, but the emergence of Covid was something devastating to the part of me that makes things. It was different in devastating ways.
To process all of this Covid craziness, I felt the need to put it down on figurative paper. To let it out. Because, if I don’t, I may not be able to get past the block while my mind, hands, and willpower all have a moment of clarity to work in tandem.
So, this is the story of what the hell happened since astrangesignal.com stopped posting and I couldn’t seem to write any longer.
So, this is it. I’d say enjoy… but it’s not all enjoyable.
But, it happened.
So, as mentioned earlier, I’m not dead. And, if you’re on my site, you probably remember that this happened and then I went more or less AWOL here. We’re unlikely to forget the Lockdown of 2020, regardless of which side of the fence we fell on regarding the Coronavirus. That there were even sides to take up versus a potentially fatal disease still staggers my mind. There was a virus out there that spread like wildfire and people were actually against doing the things that might have stopped it so that they could go to goddamned Applebees.
In the rare instances that my wife and I found ourselves outside the apartment, we either encountered empty spaces as quiet as graveyards or mobs of people looking to hoard toilet paper and bottled water. Going to Shop Rite was fucking bonkers. They had people checking how many people came into and out of the store, blocking entrances and exits to enforce chokepoints, marking the directions shoppers had to take in the aisles, and rationing several key items people were looking to hoard. These measures were there for the community as a whole and we never wanted for any of these items as a result. So, we buckled down and accepted it. But, it felt at many points as if the theme from The Walking Dead should have been playing during the whole thing. It certainly did in my head.
So, the day they closed down my work (March 23, 2020), the Lockdown began. My state took things very seriously, like most other Blue States. The store shut down to the public while the GM worked by himself in the store. After about a week of that he told corporate that he wasn’t comfortable being the only one in there.
The co-manager came in after that and fought to bring me on because he wasn’t comfortable flying solo either. He ultimately took a pay cut to do it, and – I shit you not – we went back to work April 1, 2001. I learned how to do just about everything needed in the store that I wasn’t already doing while we got everything started again. With only one other employee working with me in the whole of our giant space, I needed to be ready to do it all for when the store re-opened in the indeterminate future.
During this time, I think everyone could tell you their days blurred. The only way for me to really differentiate weeks in that time was by what show we were binge watching: Parks and Recreation, Bojack Horseman (maybe too heavy for the time), Rick and Morty, Fargo, The Mandalorian.
Then, after a curbside pick-up only soft opening on May 1, 2020, we re-opened the store to the general public on June 1, 2020.
Hostility, Madness, and Other Acts of Economics
Being a retail worker in that time was staggeringly stressful. It was as if no one had learned anything about personal space or transmission vectors during the two months of lockdown. Or decency. Masks, too. Oh: and how to fucking wear one.
It seemed to me that the world had gone mad. I had to fight at a panic attack within the first hour on that first re-opened day on account of anxiety. If the day-to-day interactions of our former retail lives weren’t enough, people got fucking worse. Every day, the stress was on par with working retail during the Christmas season. Otherwise responsible people cooped up for, bare minimum, six weeks; and the assholes who were denying the dangers of a global pandemic were even worse than the cringiest of Christmas Karens. The shit I heard yelled at me and the rest of the staff in those opening weeks would wither your soul.
Asking even the nicest seeming people to respect your boundaries in an uncertain world drew down the kind of scorn you’d expect a grieving victim’s family might level at the perpetrator of their relative’s murder. Employees at my store experienced beratement, mockery, insults, and general abuse for the want of safety. It caused a lot of folks (the ones who came back after lockdown) to quit, and many more new employees to suddenly leave after a few days of experiencing the ‘new normal.’ And that’s just what we got from customers. What came from the top wasn’t often good news either, including having to fight to keep safety precautions that forced distance between cashiers and customers because ‘they didn’t look good.’
I wasn’t even in an ‘essential’ retail environment. Going through a pharmacy or a grocery store was surreal. People were awful to one another in places like that. One of my friends with a son working at a supermarket said that it wasn’t uncommon to witness three fights a day at his store between shoppers; shoppers and staff; or even between employees. New people came in and left just as fast, regardless of ‘hero pay.’
Add to all of this that the company I worked for had figured something out: with a bare-bones staff and reduced hours they could still make an unconscionable amount of money. Even more than previous years. As a result, we never got back to a ‘normal’ level of staffing after that. Even when every indicator, especially turnover, said that we desperately needed more help. I went home every day exhausted.
My creativity, which had been on the rocks for months once the pandemic reached us, finally gave up and died. I had stopped making Signals by that point but had desperately kept trying to write. The Starfinder campaign I was writing and running evaporated. There was little joy, just a lot of fear. Through it all, I saw some people running around outside caree-free, like it was all over; not caring about the people for whom it did matter. People who were immuno-compromised like my wife and I. At the time, I still counted myself lucky. I had a job. I hadn’t caught Covid. My wife was healthy, my extended family was healthy. I kept my head down and pushed through.
Thin Silver Linings and Changes
There were a few good things that happened. I experienced a field promotion in June, 2020, and a few months after that, an actual promotion in Dec, 2020. After about four-and-a-half years of funderemployment or outright unemployment, poor fits, and some truly terrible corporate experiences, I had a growing belief that there was no place in the job market for a forty-year-old man with a degree from an art school whose former campus now has an Old Navy in it.
But, at this job, I finally was starting to feel like there might be a place where a Maurice might have a decent job, if not a career. That my job was working with stuff I loved helped – as did the employee discount. I could buy things for my wife and I that could provide the occasional hit of serotonin and take our minds off of how things were outside the walls of our home.
There were also many other changes in that time. My wife and I took on a roommate for a little over a year in August 2020; a friend and co-worker who would have been out on the street during the pandemic if we hadn’t. I rigorously maintained six-feet of distance from people and often lost my usual disposition to give hugs to friends and family.
How we handled food and dining was another big change. My wife and I no longer dined in at restaurants as often in favor of cooking at home more frequently. Our roommate introduced us to the finer points of DoorDash (the good and the bad, tipping 25% minimum regardless of service to the staff who were taking risks to get people food). We opted for takeout as well, making occasional use of curbside pick-ups.
We learned the difference between Covid-19 and seasonal allergies, often in terrifying, anxiety-amplifying ways.
But, the biggest thing to change was being inside most of the time. If it was’t essential: food, work, medicine, dog duty… we didn’t go outside (beginning a Vitamin D deficiency continuing to this day).
Eventually, over that summer, we just hunkered down and waited for news of a vaccine.
Holidays With Needles
Christmas was very different in 2020. My parents were in Arizona in their winter home when the lockdown came. The CDC was strongly recommending that seniors should not fly unless the need was dire, so the family swallowed tradition. Quality Chinese food was ordered and it was a quiet Christmas in with my wife and our roommate. Family members were met later on Zoom, where we learned virtual gatherings were like in-person ones: loud, distracted, and largely spent talking over one another. The only thing missing was jockeying for personal space at my Parent’s home on the East Coast. Still, it was lonely with just the three of us in person. We lived in this insular bubble with little exposure to the outside that was not work, grocery, or pharmacy-based through those cold months.
We did receive one, much-needed early Christmas present over the pre-holiday season: word of a vaccine around October 2020. I was glued to the NPR website to learn more every day and listening to the news podcasts I loved (NPR: Up First, as well as the lefty-leaning Daily Zeitgeist).
While the first pilot vaccine programs went out in October, these were limited to persons 60-years-old or over and were incredibly hard to come by given a myriad of obstacles. With nursing home facilities experiencing Coronavirus deaths in droves they got the lion’s share in those first weeks. The new vaccines also didn’t have the massive cooling infrastructure needed to be warehoused in a lot of places anyhow. Plus, it would take some time to start mass-producing the vaccine. Without a way to get a vaccine that winter, we waited for what our state called Phase 1a: Anyone between 18-60 with immuno-compromised complications. My wife and I both qualified for 1a.
It was a long, intense wait. Five months of working in a crowded retail store for up to ten hours a day depending on the store’s need. Five months of being surrounded by people on all sides who would not respect us or care one whit for our safety or our mental well-being. It was about that time that I had to stop listening to the podcasts and news reports so closely; too anxiety-inducing. It was too much on top of the constant fear that I would catch Corona, go into the hospital, and die. All because I wasn’t old enough to get the vaccination and diabetics have a hard time fighting the virus.
It got pretty dark for me, given my high levels of just my baseline anxiety. Everything amplified through a prism of worry and fear. I eventually relented and went to my doctors and admitted the dosage from pre-Coronavirus days was not cutting it any longer. They increased my dosage by half. It helped absorb some of the difficulties, but the only bit of true relief from this time was when my parents called sometime in early winter to tell me it had happened: Arizona had opened vaccination centers and that they received their jabs.
My parents, at least, were something I wasn’t going to have to worry about now.
When Phase 1a finally came in the late winter of 2021, it was an intensive process of trying to get my first jab. I hustled for a week before finally getting disheartened and giving up, waiting to be notified through our local health system. Despite my home being served by one of the tenth-largest healthcare systems in North America, it was still massively unprepared for the demand.
I figured if I’d been safe this long I could go just a little longer. In the beginning of April, through happenstance, a friend who worked at the local hospital saw my woes on Facebook and let me know to get my shit together right then and there; they had vaccination openings due to no-show reservations and didn’t want to waste their vaccine supplies. I tried to get my wife in on that same day but couldn’t. Work was full-tilt for her (and would be so for months after as well) and there was no escaping for her despite being closer to the hospital than I was at that moment.
When I got there, I could see the line from the access road running through the medical complex from 200 feet away. It started at the Cardiovascular wing and wrapped all the way down along its side, turned a corner, then kept going.
I waited outside in the chill for about an hour in the queue. Once I got inside, more lines waited as each person being brought in was broken down into four new lines where we had to supply our driver’s licenses. We then stood in another long line that wrapped around the indoor inoculation center, which in turn broke down into about twenty vaccination stations. The wait inside took probably another half hour. Everything was surprisingly civil. The people who weren’t being very civil at the time (and largely continue to be) didn’t want vaccinations, so no big surprises there.
Then, at around 11 in the morning, about two hours after I got the call from my friend, I was vaccinated.
When the second vaccination happened three weeks later, I went down hard. I had a good idea that it would happen though, so I was prepared. I ended up out of the store for three days while my immune system made adjustments. The worst I suffered from was fatigue – but the fatigue was all-encompassing. On day two, I slept for almost twenty hours out of that entire day while the vaccine worked its way through my body. I came out on the other side okay though. For a while, the weight came off my metaphorical shoulders.
Delta was around by then, had been for months, but it hadn’t been named. I had about ten days of relief before it hit the news. And by June, there were questions of whether or not the vaccine would even be effective against it. My mental health took a hit again, but I managed to fight through this time.
Despite all of this, a few good things happened while Delta was winding up to hit America hard.
First, in April 2021, my parents finally came home. We’d been separated for about fifteen months. During that time, I managed to kill half of my mother’s houseplants, and our family dog had passed in Arizona due to complications from a collapsed trachea. I’d had to manage several house disasters while they were gone, mostly centered around flooding, but when they got home, they were happy to simply be home and to know that my wife and I were okay. I was simply glad to have them back. Even at forty-four years old, I still feel lost sometimes when they’re not here.
Retail continued to be an adversarial environment when it came to basic safety matters from both the customers and corporate sides, but I managed to perform well. I wasn’t the perfect manager. But, I did okay, I think. I largely liked the people I worked with and I felt bonded to many of them in the same way people in high-stress environments often do. I learned a lot and I had a job. Lots of people were still feeling the crunch of the Coronacoaster (my favorite euphemism for living through this particular historical event) and I felt very fortunate. With the help of my new prescription regimen, I was somewhat more resilient, able to tackle the stressors of home, isolation, and work.
Sometime in June, I began using a new sort of blood sugar monitor to take my readings while managing the store, I often met with frustration in getting them to go the distance, though. I’m a big, fat dude (for now). And, when I work, I sweat. I mean unreasonably. On many occasions, I’d apply the sensor only to find at some point in my day that it had come loose (and sometimes bled all over the place as a result depending on how recently the sensor was applied).
It was an imperfect solution, but once I started using it, there was no way I was going back to pricking my finger two or more times a day, not knowing if I was on the upswing of the downswing. That ship had sailed. I mostly had my sugars under control though, especially given that I was moving about seventeen thousand steps a day on average (you read that right).
Also around June 2021, I found out I wasn’t going to have a career with the store. They had certain assumptions in place for people who wanted to go into the assistant general manager or general manager roles that I simply wasn’t going to give in to. That, and the fact that what they offered for those assumptions was… lopsided. Something must have been looking out for me though, because as I sweat in the back of the store, cramming product onto shelves, I got a call from a friend and former co-worker that he had a job opening. It would take some time. But, over a couple of months, things came together.
The New Gig and Sudden Changes
After a brief vacation in Rehoboth Beach, I got news of the new gig’s availability and I put in my two week notice mid-October, 2021. Our roommate had moved out and the spare room transformed into a home office so that I could I work from home.
For the first time in years I found myself in a position to regain control of my own health, particularly when it came to my untreated ADHD and Diabetes. I started getting my shit together. It took a long time. There was a lot of poverty induced personal neglect on my part, and slowly but surely, I started fixing things. Not enough as it turned out. But, it was a beginning. I made appointments with my psychiatric office, which had changed hands, started filling prescriptions. For reasons beyond my ken, I kept doing a lot of dumb shit though. My diet didn’t change, and rationing kept happening. Being poor for a while will make you do crazy stuff I guess. It felt like progress though.
It was around this time of relative stability that life would throw my wife and I a curveball in the form of Avascular Necrosis (AVN).
Spoiler alert: no one died. But parts of my wife’s bones did.
To make a long story short, the blood flow in the ball joints of each of her hips stopped providing enough blood to the bone. As a result, those parts of her femurs both degenerated irreversibly. We don’t know exactly when the time of death for the ball joints of the bones were, but they were diagnosed in October of 2021 after months of increasing pain. In November one of the joints finally collapsed and took my wife out of work. My new job couldn’t have come at a more fortunate time. I took on the job of shouldering the bills for two months while we worked out her temporary disability. After all the time she supported me while I was unemployed and running around in circles to figure out how to repair my life, it still doesn’t feel like I’ve done enough.
With hospitals still backed up and Covid protocols making things difficult, it took months (and emotional pain and suffering on both of our parts) to arrange the surgeries she needed as the Omicron Variant of Covid-19 began its rampage across America. If you’ve never had a joint collapse due to something like AVN, you only need to know one thing: it is brutal. I didn’t even experience the pain directly, but secondhand exposure was enough. My wife eats pain for breakfast and has the highest tolerance for it than anyone I have ever known (case in point: she broke her kneecap on the way to a funeral once; she got up, attended the service and the reception afterwards, stood through the whole thing, and never once complained until arriving home).
The first total hip replacement was in early March of 2022. The surgeon had said that comparatively, the pain of the surgery would feel like instant relief compared to the actual condition of AVN. I had my doubts (frankly, I thought he was full of shit).
He and my wife proved me wrong.
The difference was night and day. She suddenly could do more. Even with intensive PT, things got better and better until the second joint experienced total collapse. There was a long period of secondhand pain via basic human empathy on my part. Watching someone get lit up with pain for simply sitting still sucks. We waited another forty-some days and finally got the second total hip replacement surgery in late May of 2022.
Things have gotten better. My wife and I have been vaccinated and boosted (second boosters to follow in August of 2022 if we both qualify for a second round). She’ll be back to work in September of 2022 with any luck, and I’m happy in my new job. For the first time in a while, the lights in my brain have been slowly coming back on. Creativity is something that I can feel flowing again, albeit slowly and irregularly. There’s something about living through historically significant events that diverts all of that energy into basic survival and just watching to make sure nothing is going to come out and take you out at the knees (or the hips). Hypervigilance and fear are starting to back off enough for me to hope that maybe something better comes out of the times that seemed so dark and hopeless.
The world isn’t right – never has been. But it’s less wrong in some ways. There’s still a long way to go. Especially with SCOTUS looking to take America back to the Fifties and telling us all that bodily autonomy isn’t a right. But, we live to carry on. I live to carry on.
Here’s to more posts and more work and more future to write.