I knew the yearlong pandemic was far from over, a week or so ago, when I found myself with dozens of others in downtown St. Paul’s Roy Wilkins Auditorium, each of us standing uneasily at our own table, spitting over and over into a plastic tube.
This was my third coronavirus test, and the first that didn’t involve a swab jammed upward into my nostril at a drive-up testing location. That was bad enough, but the recent self-administered procedure seemed somehow worse.
I was panicked at sharing an indoor space with anyone other than my immediate family after mostly avoiding such a scenario like the, well, plague. I was assured the auditorium was well ventilated, and yet nervous-looking health workers were ready to pounce on those who didn’t keep their masks close to their faces while endlessly spewing saliva.
How weird it would be, I thought to myself as I dropped my vial into a box and beat a hasty retreat, if I caught the coronavirus while being tested for the coronavirus. (On the bright side, I received my result in less than 24 hours; negative.)
Yeah, it’s been a hellish year.
I’m not a big crier, but I bawled in early April, amid the onset of quarantining in the western world, when I watched Britain’s Queen Elizabeth deliver a YouTube pep talk ending in the words, “Better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”
I had another cry, just a few days ago, when I watched Demi Lovato sing “Lovely Day” in a video that was part of Joe Biden’s virtual inaugural celebration. I’m not sure why I reacted in this way since I had seen this particular cover of Bill Withers’ 2015 song several times before. Maybe it was the health workers and the other regular folk serving as Demi’s joyful backup singers, combined with this month’s tentative forecasts of normalcy lurking just around the corner, that reduced me to a blubbering mass. (A cameo by my fellow boricua Lin-Manuel may have been a factor, too. ¡Wepa!)
The year hasn’t been wall-to-wall weepy. In fact, it might go down as one of the best in some ways. It has been a time of creativity, fellowship and personal growth like few other times in my life.
I’m a homebody bordering on hermit-hood. So when the word came down that we would have to scrap our social calendars and office commutes to flatten the curve, I didn’t exactly mourn.
I was already a work-from-home devotee, maybe more so than any of my Pioneer Press co-workers, so I greeted my bosses’ order to telecommute for the duration with jubilation. In short order, I had cobbled together an attic sanctum sanctorum for executing my web-editor duties — with a big-screen TV for monitoring CNN, a standing desk upon which to place my brand-new employer-issued ThinkPad, an exercise bike for quick workout sessions to help get the mental juices flowing, and strategically placed smart speakers mainly for Minnesota Public Radio, but with a bit of merengue and punk rock to blow off some steam.
I feel some sadness. Though I hated being crammed into a cubicle at the office, and the clatter and roar of the HVAC system sometimes forced me to use earplugs, I loved our location just across the Robert Street Bridge from downtown St. Paul with majestic views in every direction. I will never see those vistas again. The paper has relocated to smaller administrative quarters amid a news-staff diaspora that, in all likelihood, shall never be fully reversed.
My little family saw big changes as the pandemic unfolded. With the weather warming up, my wife and son threw themselves into home-upgrading work that continues to this day. They spent months replacing all the tall wooden fencing around our property. Then they set about rebuilding our front porch, a massive undertaking still underway.
I can’t be trusted with power tools, so I kept well away from this beehive of activity. Instead, I made myself useful in the kitchen. My wife no longer had time for any cooking, so I took over — as Cookie on this cattle drive, if you will.
Frantically scanning my iPad for inspiration, and ransacking my brain for details of childhood meals, I gradually became proficient at one-pot cooking: a curry here, an arroz con pollo there. An early dalliance with an Instant Pot foundered; my wife hated how the food turned out. So I choked down my impatience, put away the pressure cooker, and devoted the stove-top time required to fashion meals more to my sweetie’s liking.
My latest project is cooking the same yummy veggie-chili recipe week after week, each time for different friends. Nothing, during a dark year, has made me happier.
The pandemic, in the spring of 2020, had me too scared to leave the house. This would normally have been the launch of my road-bicycling season as I set about breaking the previous year’s mileage record. But, this time, my biking partner’s attempts to lure me outdoors were to no avail.
Slowly, it dawned on me that I could ride safely if I took precautions: toting lots of hand sanitizer, masking up when I was close to others for more than a second or two, doing my number two before every ride so I would never have to use a trailside Porta Potty, and transporting food and drink to avoid convenience stores.
These security measures limited my range, for the most part. But at one point my wife and I cooked up a scheme: I’d attempt a century (cycling lingo for a 100-mile ride) and she’d serve as my SAG (short for “support and gear”) driver. This was a swell date with the love of my life; we had an outdoor picnic at the halfway point in New Germany and, on my return leg, met for cones at Lost Lake Creamery in Mound. I suffered a mild knee injury on this odyssey but it was worth it.
This year, I am wasting no time. It is mid-March and I’m already nearing 100 miles of rides with my bikin’ bestie Chris amid warm weather after our winter-long training on our stationary bikes. It’s going to be a great ciclismo season.
In the before times when I was able to safely get together with family members in Florida, endless Upwords matches on a condo porch were de rigueur. A variation on Scrabble, the word-focused board game is more compact because letters and words do not spread out but move upward, stacking up to five levels high.
Last spring, in a bid to foster family unity during quarantine, I set us all up for online matches. My aunt and cousin joined the tournament. I soon christened my opponents the Four Valkyries against whom I was hapless. But now, a year later, I’m starting to win.
These matches have meant the world to me. As an introvert, I’m not always up for chitchat, which I find exhausting. I therefore often retreat into myself instead of reaching out, which is the last thing I should be doing amid an isolating global catastrophe. Upwords has been a way for me to consistently connect with loved ones in a way that doesn’t drain my social battery.
I’ve never been a snappy dresser. Fortunate to work in an office-casual profession, I rarely got fancier than blue jeans with sports coats (no tie, never a tie). Yet, I drew the line at sweatpants, even at home, as too slovenly in appearance. No loungewear for me.
The pandemic has scrambled the style equation for millions. Sweats have become standard issue in home offices. And why the hell not? They are super comfy — and my wife found me Banana Republic versions that make at least a bit of a style statement.
I relaxed my appearance in other ways. Meticulous about my locks and facial hair for most of the pandemic year, I’ve recently let it all grow out to the consternation of friends and relatives who have never seen me with a mustache, a beard and big head of curls.
My wife is mildly horrified — this is not the man she married — so she will be giving me one of her professional-grade haircuts soon.
It’s been fun to experiment with my appearance, but this seems like just the right time to restore my tidy facade. The pandemic has been a period to let myself go deliciously to hell, but the end of this crisis appears imminent, and it is time to spiff myself up in more ways than one. I may even don jeans again.
The pandemic and its resulting home confinement were made bearable by two great loves of my life.
My wife and I celebrated our 30th anniversary just as the pandemic was beginning in China, with its implications not yet felt stateside. By our 31st, Jeaneth and I had the ultimate confirmation that we were meant to be together; far from wanting to throttle each other after a year of enforced togetherness, we felt closer than ever even though we’ve snarled at each other like Klingons. (“You are so loud,” our son would sometimes complain.)
My other eternal love? Her name is Miriam Maisel, a prim but profane comedienne who, at times, made me laugh so hard, my wife feared I would choke to death. If you haven’t yet met the marvelous Midge, you are in for a treat. If you’ve wept over the past year, as I have, this Amazon.com show is just what you need.
Note: This essay also appeared here.