Blog: Pandemic

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.


A typical day (that is not Shabbat) in the "new normal":

I get up, shower, dress, feed the cat -- all of that was true before. Spending the day in PJs is not for me.

I tend to the garden. This is new and, of course, seasonal -- but "something with plants" runs from roughly May through October, nearly half the year. This would be harder (might not happen) were I driving to work each morning.

I make coffee. I have learned to drink coffee (so long as it's not too dark). I can do this at home; the stuff at the office is more bitter than I like. At the office I drank more diet cola.

Some days I do something with sourdough. This is new and I don't have the kinks worked out yet. Beyond sustaining the starter, how much discard will I want? How much do I want to bake, and will I want to make pancakes too? Feeding the starter involves some planning.

Work is work, spent mostly in front of a computer. Most interactions with other human beings are in written form. Sometimes there are meetings, and if nobody's presenting they're video. Coworkers and I have been reduced to little boxes on the screen. I take frequent breaks to get up and walk around, deliberately make trips downstairs and back up. Sometimes I play with the cat. The cat has gotten used to us being around all the time.

I make real lunches most days, since we're both home and kitchen use is practical. While writing this I'm reminded that I think I have a bag of granola in my desk drawer at work, oops. (I did remember to collect my yogurt from the fridge on that last day in the office.)

I shut down the work laptop at the end of the working day. I intentionally create that break, that metaphorical "getting into the car to drive home" transition. Sure, I might look at email on my phone later, same as before, but work is work and it gets boundaries around it.

I do a lot more cooking than I did before. I like cooking and now I have more time for it.

I have watched almost no television in the last few months. I might be reading a little more fiction; I haven't been keeping track.

I miss spending time with other people in person. I miss my choir. I miss going out. But I'm getting more time with my husband and that's nice. I hope someday we'll be able to travel again; we had just started to hit our groove with that. And it would be nice to be able to go to restaurants someday, much as I also enjoy cooking.

I fill my days and I'm not bored, but one day is much like another. Shabbat is different, and that matters more now than ever.

A Shabbat story

My synagogue, like everyone else, shut down in mid-March. They've been holding Shabbat services over Zoom; most Reform Jews don't care about using computers on Shabbat but I do, so I haven't joined. But I miss my minyan, and also we've been preparing for my rabbi's retirement (all those celebrations went out the window too), so, um.

A couple weeks ago the Conservative movement put out a detailed analysis of the issue. Their conclusion (and yes I read the supporting documentation, all 35 pages of it) was that, basically, passive computer-based stuff you set in motion before Shabbat is ok under these specific exceptional circumstances (do not extrapolate beyond COVID). Starting two weeks ago I've used my tablet (intentional: battery, not wall current) to join the Zoom meeting before Shabbat. I left it sitting there with a headset plugged in, with my video turned off and mic muted. (Even remembered to disable my password lock so I could see the video feed.)

People tried to interact with me that first week, but I didn't want to interact with the software on Shabbat to unmute and apparently they couldn't do that remotely, so oh well. I had a conversation with my rabbi about this, saying I'd talk if I didn't have to do anything but I did so I couldn't.

This Shabbat was my rabbi's last as our senior rabbi, after 32 years with us. It was, as you'd expect, a very emotional service, and I'm glad I could attend even in this limited way. (Better, of course, would have been for us to all be together physically, but that is not within our power.) I knew that someone in the minyan was organizing a thing at the end where each of us would say just a few words (the request was to share something fun, not teary), but as usual I didn't expect to be able to join in. Only during the service did it occur to me that had I gone to the home of another willing participant, I might have been able to passively benefit from others' use of Zoom. But I don't know how kosher it would have been to set that up in advance even if I'd thought of it.

So there I was, sitting in my living room with my tablet on the chair next to me, listening to people share stories... when my cat walked across the tablet.

And unmuted me.

And somebody noticed and said "hey, Monica unmuted", so I explained about the cat, who they declared to be a "Shabbos cat" in the nature of the "Shabbos goy".

And then I ad-libbed a response (everyone else had had time to prepare), and I felt like I was part of the goodbye for a rabbi who has meant a great deal to me.

Thanks Orlando. I don't know how you did that, but I'll take it.

Quarantine rambles

Working from home seems to be mostly going ok for my company. We have several standing "coffee break" video chats each week for the human connection and are using video more for other meetings. We have learned how to add custom background images to Microsoft Teams and this is a source of amusement. (I would like to find some from Babylon 5, particularly images from (a) Minbar and (b) inside the station, but have had no luck so far.) My team has a new person who started a few weeks ago, so he started in quarantine and hasn't yet been to the office. I'm his mentor, so I'm trying to make sure he's getting all the support and human connection he needs. The situation seems roughest on the people who live alone, though the ones with small children at home have challenges too. I'm fortunate to have Dani and the cat.

I have read a little more fiction than usual, some of it made available for free by authors because of the quarantine. Thank you! One that I just finished is Dragon of Glass by Zoe Chant, a delightful, lightweight novel about a transplant from another world and the woman who released him; watching him try to fit into our world is a lot of fun. Tor is making the Murderbot novellas available this week for free (leading up to a novel release next month); I'd read the first a while back but hadn't read the others yet, so this is good timing. I also have a gift waiting from a Kickstarter for a different book (while you're waiting and stuck at home, here...). I also just read (not free) The Body in the Building, a novella by a friend and fellow SE refugee. The point-of-view character is an architect who discovers problems with a major project, and then discovers that those problems were only the tip of an iceberg of bigger problems... I figured out the mystery before the reveal but also fell for some misdirection, so neither too easy nor too hard.

I have been spending more time in the kitchen. Yes I'm cooking all our meals at home aside from very occasional takeout from local restaurants, but also: with the food supply being sometimes erratic, I've upped the produce deliveries and am doing some low-key preserving. I've never canned and don't have the equipment, but I'm pickling things (to refrigerate, not shelf-stable). So far I've pickled eggs, beets, cauliflower, and jalapenos, and will do some carrots next. I also plan to dry some fruit, dried fruit not requiring refrigeration. (I'm trying to keep the fridge full.) I haven't been able to get bread flour since Pesach ended, so I guess I'll try making bread with all-purpose flour. (Also haven't been able to get rye flour.) I would like to get some more seedlings for container gardening, but I don't know if I want to go to Home Depot for them and nobody delivers. (Insert rant about how Home Depot gets to sell plants because they sell stuff for home repair, but local nurseries had to close.)

Someone I know indirectly from Mi Yodeya suggested a book and a series of videos on Reb Nachman that look very personally relevant. (I've read one chapter of the book and seen one of the videos so far; more soon.) I joined an online talmud class (by R' Ethan Tucker of Hadar). A friend pointed out to me that since we're all stuck at home anyway, synagogues in other cities are just as available to me as my local ones. There's one in DC that seems like a good fit for me. Closer to home, my synagogue's two rabbis and cantor each hold a weekly open chat on Zoom, so I'll get to see my rabbi that way tomorrow.

Our choir director sends out daily music selections with accompanying (short) history essays. I'm enjoying these.

I have barely watched any TV.

Pesach 2020

Yisrael came to Egypt and the land flourished because of them. But a new Paro (pharaoh, king) arose who did not know them, and he enslaved them and made their lives hard. And not being content with that, he piled on misery, deliberately acting against them first by making their labors even harder and then by killing their children. When they protested, he prioritizing his own ego and divinity complex not only over justice but also over the well-being of his own people. At every opportunity to change toward the good, Paro hardened his heart and dug in more firmly on the path of evil.

This sounds familiar, on two different fronts.

On one front, the plague of Covid-19 has struck us (I am not asserting a source here) and, even as more people die in the US than anywhere else, even though we were repeatedly warned, our own Paro prioritizes his ego over the well-being of his people, ignoring pleas from governors who don't bow and scrape enough to him, stealing medical supplies from some of them to supply his friends. He prioritizes commerce over health, profit over protecting the vulnerable. The people cry out for rescue.

Now this is not the harsh reign of terror of the torah's Paro; while, sadly, many are stricken who could have been saved, we, unlike Yisrael, can take some measures to protect ourselves. Nothing is certain -- who knows whether that grocery delivery was safe? -- but we can hide at home and try to wait it out.

If we are able to work from home. If we have financial cushions. If we have homes. Never forget that not everyone does. I am fortunate in this regard; many are not. At my (tiny) seder this Pesach, I expressed gratitude for my household being saved (as far as we know), while noting that this year we do not have the national salvation of the Exodus. Many are still in danger.

And then there's the personal front. A Paro driven by ego, contempt for "lesser" people, and sometimes malice arose over me and mine, and did persecute some of us and seek to destroy -- not literally throwing people into the Nile, but metaphorically. There were many chances to correct that path, even saving face, but at each opportunity, the modern Paro hardened his heart, surrounded himself with complicit counselors, and dug in. At every turn, image was more important than teshuva, correcting misdeeds, and tzedakah, righteousness. Counselors who disagreed were driven out without even time for their bread (or health coverage) to finish.

I and many others escaped, and I am grateful for that even though we left both property and people behind. It is an incomplete exodus, as with Israel in Egypt -- rabbinic tradition says that many people feared the unknown and did not join the Exodus. Modern Paro's taskmasters continued to afflict some of those who remained, but also offered trinkets and promises to encourage everyone to stay. Paro's hope, it seems, is that if he gives the slaves straw again to make brick-making less onerous, the slaves will stay and be thankful. And Paro might be right in that.

A new Paro has arisen over the modern Egypt I fled, and has appointed a new vizier to speak publicly on behalf of Egypt. It is too soon to know whether the new Paro and vizier will correct past injustices or continue to sweep them under the royal carpet. Neither Paro nor vizier has sent messengers to all those who were driven out, and so for now Egypt remains Mitzrayim, the narrow place. I feel sorry for the many who remain and hope the new leaders will do teshuva, but Pesach encourages me to look forward and not backward, to a future of promise and not a past of narrow-minded oppression.

I am sad for the unnecessary victims of both Paros. Protecting myself is important and perhaps all I can do, but the Exodus is not complete so long as the oppression of those left behind continues. It was only at the sea of reeds that Yisrael was free from Paro. Sadly, the destruction at the sea of reeds was necessary because of Paro's hardened heart; it was not the desired outcome, and God rebuked the angels who sang triumphantly there. If Paro had ever done teshuva, widespread destruction could have been averted. I hope that our modern Paros will do teshuva and repair rather than enable ongoing damage.

A day much like any other

Get up, shower (because we do not let hygiene lapse).

Make coffee. I seem to have learned to drink coffee. Between us we're going through 4-6 K-cups per day; that jumbo box isn't going to last as long as it looks like it should. And that's with tea and cold drinks as well throughout the day. Remember to drink water; it matters.

Box of tea arrived yesterday. Good.

Plug laptop into dock, start work day. Visit the "pets" chat channel. Mon/Wed/Fri, join the virtual coffee break mid-morning just to see and interact with coworkers. Try to work productively. Pay particular attention to my mentee who joined the company two weeks ago in the midst of all this. Read more…

Quarantine cooking

We're under a stay-at-home order (which, granted, isn't exactly the same as a quarantine), so much cooking is happening. I don't think any of my cooking is especially exciting, but since I enjoy seeing what others are doing and coworkers have asked for pictures of some of mine, I'll go ahead and share some. I'm also pretty happy with a soup I made tonight (recipe below). Read more…

Random notes from a pandemic

Boy did it feel weird to be isolated for Shabbat -- no torah study, no services, no shared meals, just me and Dani home all day. Some Reform and Conservative congregations (including mine) streamed services, but I don't use computers on Shabbat. If weeks turn to months I wonder how much pressure I'll feel on that. One bright spot is that we have a lunch-time torah study (parsha of the week) on Wednesdays that I can never go to because of work, but since it's virtual now I can block off that hour from work and attend. So at least I'll have that.

Pesach is in a few weeks. The seder we would have gone to is going virtual. I care about the ritual aspects way more than Dani does; his connection is family not religion, and we won't be with his family. It'll feel weird for me to basically read the haggadah while he plays along, maybe? I wonder if it would be safe to invite, say, one other couple and sit at opposite ends of the dining-room table. Maybe the virtual one will start well before sunset (sunset being late now that we're in DST)? I don't know what to do here.

Local businesses are struggling, as expected. Today we got take-out from a local restaurant to do our small part to help -- got two meals' worth of food, so lunch today and probably lunch tomorrow. I got email from the shop where I have new eyeglasses pending; when they come in I can pick up curb-side, but of course that removes any possibility of adjusting the frames to my face, which is always necessary. So I guess I get my new glasses when all of this is over.

With both of us working from home we've needed to develop some protocols: close the door when in a meeting, use headsets, coordinate lunch times. Eating lunch together helps with the isolation. Both of us are used to casual in-person chatting with coworkers and video chat isn't the same -- it's the difference between bumping into someone at the coffee machine and chatting for a few minutes, which feels natural, and taking a deliberate step to initiate a video chat just to say hi, which feels more forced. Our doc team (which is already remote even without a pandemic) is now talking about a regular casual video chat; maybe that will help. Maybe the Pittsburgh team should do that too.

Dani and I wanted to play an on-theme game yesterday and our copy of Pandemic is missing. Much sadness. We're trying to figure out if we left it at some friend's house or what. It's the older edition, before they changed the board and the game pieces in ways that combine badly for the vision-challenged, so I actually want that one back, or to replace it with that edition, rather than getting the current edition, if it turns out we need to get another copy.


Pennsylvania shut down "non-life-sustaining businesses" tonight. There's a link there with a detailed list of what's in and out -- some oddities (beer distributors are life-sustaining, apparently), but mostly what you'd expect.

And California extended the stay-at-home order already in force in Metro San Francisco to the entire state tonight. Even so, their governor thinks half the state will be infected in the next eight weeks. I haven't heard any projections for PA, but cases here have been following the usual curve so far.

Siderea posted a summary of the Imperial College report that might be spurring the government to take this more seriously. (The report is linked.) They ran simulations of a few response scenarios, ranging from "basically do nothing" to fuller responses. Even with stronger responses, it's looking grim. And it's (at the national level) self-inflicted; we saw what was happening elsewhere and dallied anyway.