Doing Normal Things

I spent last week in New York visiting my family, the first time I had seen my parents and brothers in person since December 2019. Aside from a trip to Manhattan’s whimsical new Little Island public park, I spent most of my time in the house I grew up in on Long Island, enjoying good food and better company. I’m very grateful that this trip happened safely.

The trip encompasses a lot of pandemic “firsts” for me. Since March 2020, my family visit represents my first trip out of the Seattle metropolitan area, my first flight, my first ride in a car of more than 10 miles, my first meal inside a restaurant, and my first time visiting my hometown. These are just some of the normal things that take me conscious effort to do now. Breaking the dull routine of the last 15 months has been very emotionally expensive. I’m coming out of this pandemic without having contracted the virus, but with my emotional ability to do normal things weakened. It will take time to rebuild this strength, much like it’ll take time to rebuild the upper-body strength that diminished over 6-plus months of not going to my gym.

Over the last year people have, in casual conversation, asked me whether I have any plans. Any plans for the weekend? Any plans for the holidays? Any plans for my birthday? Apart from bike rides, nearby shopping, and video calls, I haven’t planned on doing much. Now I’m heading into Seattle’s post-vaccination summer — and if it’s anything like a pre-2020 summer, there will be at least two things to do every weekend in different neighborhoods or with different groups of friends or family. Festivals are largely postponed, but social and sporting events are already coming back.

As my first test of going to a big event, I went to a Mariners game on Memorial Day weekend with a friend who moved to town in March 2020 and who I hadn’t seen in person since then. The Texas Rangers were in town. We got tickets in a “fully vaccinated section,” an upper-deck location with terrible views and a mask-optional policy. The tickets also entitled us to free T-shirts, discounts on food and merch, and entry to general admission areas like The Pen where we could gather at pre-pandemic density levels. Over 11,000 people attended the game, including some Texas fans who had flown in, and the game was striking in how ordinary it felt. With Washington likely to open fully at the end of June, I now wonder whether I’ll be able to sit behind the visitors’ dugout when the Yankees come to town in early July in a full (or, let’s be honest, a somewhat full) stadium.

Normal things are emotionally expensive. After over a year of not driving and barely even being driven in a car, a 30-minute ride to the airport is tremendously stressful. I find myself procrastinating and avoiding when making plans to meet a friend, to go to the gym, to go to the bank, and even sometimes to go to the supermarket. I am still attuned to a world that is very small, centered on my house and all the activities I do entirely within it, including working my day job, which I may continue to do from home for the rest of the year. Until I had started to try doing a boring out-of-home task like driving to a couple of errands, I hadn’t realized just how difficult it is now.

For me the pandemic feels like something that’s ending. That perspective isn’t universal. My postponed trip to Copenhagen may happen later this year, as my hotel is more or less demanding that I take it or forfeit the money I prepaid over a year ago, and Denmark is indeed (for now) admitting fully vaccinated U.S. tourists into the country. Much of Europe is the same way. Asia, particularly India, has endured some terrible outbreaks and still lags in vaccinations. I am still shocked that Canada, who usually has their act together regarding health care, is so far behind in vaccinations that our borders will remain closed for now. Canada and the U.S. are so dependent on each other that I had expected us to run a massive cross-border campaign to get everyone inoculated. Washington state, too, has disappointed me. Although our case counts and death counts had remained relatively low for most of the pandemic, our vaccination rates in parts of the state (especially rural and working-class areas where sick time for vaccine recovery doesn’t exist) are low and our case counts are now among the highest, per capita, of any state.

Nearly 600,000 Americans have died from causes attributable to the pandemic, including thousands of people close to where I live and where I grew up. I do not feel a survivor’s guilt. On the contrary, I feel like the preventative measures my area took helped to stem the spread of the virus in aggregate, even if some of them, like the ritualistic cleaning of shopping cart handles, were more cosmetic than useful. We learned a lot: about disease tracking, about clear communication, about vaccine distribution, and about the social and economic costs of pandemic response. These lessons, which have been very costly, will save more lives in the future. Perhaps we’ll adopt good habits that are already well-known to limit disease spread, like encouraging mask-wearing by people who have contagious illnesses like the common cold, as is done in Eastern Asia. I still believe that the next normal, as America reopens, will look a lot like the previous normal — reopened offices and all — but we can certainly make it better than it has been.