Comfortably at home…

Once upon a time, a three-day weekend invariably triggered a round of book hunting. I’d slip out to shops from the Philly burbs all the way down to Rockville.

Here in the 3rd plague year, I’m just having trouble finding that level of motivation. It’s not that I like the books any less, but that I hate people all the more. Obnoxious behavior in public seems to be the rule rather than the exception. It’s impossible to be out and avoid the Karens and Kens insisting common sense, decency, and decorum aren’t things they need. Decent behavior is, obviously, just for other people and not for these self-important twatwaffles.

Most of the mask “mandates,” to the extent that they were ever really enforced, have fallen, but good sense along with both my personal physician and RN sister still strongly recommend them. I’ll defer to their knowledge of best practices over taking unsolicited advice from the average American politician. I’ll also fully admit, though, hours of browsing for books fully masked with glasses periodically steamed over, frankly, just isn’t fun. 

I miss spending a good part of these long weekends picking through endless stacks. I’ve gotten out a few times since cold weather set in, but not often – and those trips rarely resulted in real treasures, even if they coughed up plenty of good basic reading material. As a former boss of mine was overly fond of saying, the juice simply isn’t worth the squeeze. 

Someday I’m sure it will be again, but just now I’m perfectly willing to rely on the internet to let me get my book fix either until the browsing environment gets more fun or I recover some lost motivation. It’s hard to say which of those things may happen first. Between the general fuckery of people as a group and the persistent low-level threat of plague, assuming it happens at all, could be out of order on its face. There are way worse ways to spend three days than comfortably at home.

I don’t miss it…

It’s the first of February. That means I haven’t set foot in a Walmart in a little over two years now. So much for the idea that you can’t get by in rural America without the overawing presence of that particular big box establishment. In the age of online retail, the idea that any one business is indispensable is illusory, at best. 

I made my last trip to Walmart on the last Saturday in January 2020 – just as reports of a strange new virus circulating through the United States were beginning to heat up. It was a “stocking up“ trip. If I remember correctly, I ended up topping off the larder to the tune of about $300 of non-perishables and shelf stable products, laid in just in case things got weird.

I’ll never be a doomsday prepper. Once supplies of certain medications are depleted, my days are most likely numbered, so that relieves me of needing to plan for anything more than about six months of surviving in any post-apocalyptic hellscape.

I know there are plenty of people out here on the internet who are more than happy to tell you that you need a to have a basement filled with years’ worth of dry beans and rice and thousands of gallons of potable water. For 99.99% of any scenario most of us are likely to face, that’s probably multiple levels of planning past the point of overkill. 

Being ready to ride out something less than the complete collapse of civilization, though, just makes good sense. I mean why set yourself up to be caught out by a freak weather event, a temporary supply chain disruption, or the general uncertainty that seems to be the hallmark of life in and around the Great Plague era?

As for Walmart, I don’t miss it even a little.

The authentic experience…

It was pitch black when I left the house Saturday morning for my weekly supply run. These early morning trips for groceries started as a way of avoiding potential plague carriers swarming the supermarket later in the day on Saturday, but have long since become part of the normal rhythm of life. The draw of continuing to avoid as many people as possible is just too strong to ignore. 

My love of avoiding people in a retail setting, however, isn’t really the point. What struck me as the truck rolled down the driveway was an unexpectedly strong memory from childhood. If you didn’t grow up in a specific time and place, it’s not something that’s likely to mean anything to you… but for some of us, it’s a memory that’s almost formative. It’s certainly one of the earliest memories I have that isn’t in some way hazy. 

You see, a long time ago, southwest of Connellsville, Pennsylvania there use to be a shopping mecca called Pechin’s. I remember it from the early 80s. It was a time long before anyone in our part of Appalachia thought of big box retail – easily a decade or more before I saw the inside of my first Walmart. Pechin’s was, in a word, unique. They were a one stop, dirt cheap purveyor for groceries, meats, shoes, books, sporting goods, home improvement wares, baked goods, and an insanely cheap cafeteria lunch. Surely more that hasn’t stuck with me, but let me tell you, five- or six-year-old Jeff was obviously impressed with the place.

I remember distinctly the whole place having a pronounced rickety, held together with bailing twine and duct tape feel. I can’t imagine it would ever pass modern health and safety standards, but it was good enough for those of us from the back half of the last century. 

Why did this long-forgotten memory come flooding back on a Saturday morning in October? I’m guessing because all of those trips in the 80s involved piling into the car well before sunup, for the hour plus drive across Garrett County and into southwestern Pennsylvania. The early bird gets the worm and all that. 

The internet tells me that the original Pechin complex is long gone – done in by the death of the founder and driving force and later fully erased by fire – but that the name lives on in smaller, and surely less colorful stores. Somehow, I doubt today’s shoppers are getting the authentic Pechin’s experience.

I’m glad I did.

A rare bit of truth in advertising…

Today was my first planned “day off” in 2021. It was, in part, intended as a day to catch a deep breath before diving in to what are historically my most ridiculous two or three weeks of my year. It was also an opportunity to celebrate having all my shots and getting back to doing one of the few things I like doing that doesn’t involve staying home with the critters.

I didn’t plan a lot of these “one off” days during the plague year. A long weekend when things aren’t open or when going anywhere there might be people is ill advised felt a bit superfluous. Better to hold the days while I wait and see.

Today wasn’t actually the day I planned. I was going to troll through a couple of local used book shops, maybe do some antiquing, and call it a triumphant return to normalcy. A week or two ago, though, a friend inadvertently reminded me of a shop about an hour away that I’ve long had my eye on, but had never visited. What better way to note my newly acquired immunity than heading out to a new place?

The Baldwin Book Barn promises 300,000 volumes across four stories of a former dairy barn. A family run bookseller since 1938, I could hardly expect to find the dollar bin wonders I turn up from less specialized places. Still, the Baldwin’s place didn’t disappoint in any way. It was exactly as advertised in all respects. 

I walked away with half a dozen books – a few hole fillers, a few that drew my interest in the moment, and one rather nice 100+ year old history of colonial Maryland. A few others were a treat to hold and page through, but would have outstripped my merger book budget by about 1000%.

I got to spend the morning awash in a sea of books and as a bonus had a pleasant drive through southeastern Pennsylvania horse country. I’d be hard pressed to think up a better way to spend a Friday… even if it will take me weeks to recover from being in the same room with as many as ten people simultaneously.

Back in the world…

I know plenty of people have been far more risk tolerant than I’ve been over the last year. Some have been far less risk tolerant than me. I hope, as usual, I managed to fall somewhere in the middle of the curve – not too indifferent, but not too paranoid. 

Even when the Great Plague started, I didn’t fully sequester myself. I managed to complete regular trips out for groceries, carryout, and whatever I couldn’t live without from Lowe’s. I largely made sure to do those things at times other people would consider “inconvenient.” As often as not, I had entire stores almost completely to myself. 

In making my first trip back into the broader world this weekend, I’m not sure what I was expecting beyond it feeling somehow “different.”

As it turns out, the world is still as full of people as it was in the Before Time… and that makes everything just awful. 

I managed to lose the crowd, or most of it, while I was wandering the stacks peering at books, but as soon as I popped out the end of a row, there they were, slack jawed and milling around aimlessly in the aisles, in the parking lots, and on the roads.

I’ve heard it said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but I can tell you now in complete sincerity, the absence of large groups of people in my daily, weekly, and monthly routine has not made me any more fond of them in any way. If anything, the absence of people has had the exact opposite effect on me. 

As the world schlepps on towards returning to “normal,” I’ll be over here coming up with new and creative ways to keep on avoiding the other returnees.  

It’s been two weeks…

So, it’s been two weeks since gleefully getting my second jab in hopes that my body would learn to treat COVID like a mild annoyance rather than a deadly virus. It’s been two weeks since my Saturday of discontent when three layers of wool wasn’t enough to make me feel warm. It’s been two lingering weeks waiting for what the virologists say is the time it takes for a body to build up full immunity.

Not being a virologist myself, I’m in a position of largely just needing to trust what they say is true, which is fine since it’s what I’ve been doing since the beginning of the Great Plague. I mean in a contest between believing politicians and believing people who have spent their entire careers working in a particular, demanding field of study that calls for them to be, by definition, highly educated, I’m not sure why anyone would default to believing politicians.

The number of new infections is now heading back up – utterly predictable when the politicians used the decline following the winter surge to make a few long steps towards “business as usual.” If I had to guess, it looks like the trend will settle somewhere above what we adorably considered the “peak” back during the second wave. Hardly a good news story, but whatever. People, or a large portion of them, seem to have lost interest and are ready to play the odds.

In the absence of a test to confirm that my blood is swimming with antibodies, I suppose I’m playing the odds too, but it feels like I’m doing it with more reasonable justification and likelihood of success than if I were doing it purely “because I want to.”

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a book buying binge of monumental proportions coming on… but there’s no part of me that regrets waiting for it to be legitimately safe for me to take on that project.

A more tolerable gamble…

So here we are heading into the end of March. It’s been a full year since I made the last grand sweep through my normal haunts in search of just a few more books to top off my shelves. Not knowing when I’d get back into the shops – or whether the shops would be able to stagger through closures and restrictions – I risked a last book buying binge when COVID-19 positivity in the region was first taking off. Since then, I’ve limited myself to what I could find online not listed at absurdly retail prices.

I’m happy to report that this week, I’ve shuffled in the paperwork for the first bit of vacation time in 2021. I’m still trying to hold back most of my leave this year for after the inevitable Operation Return to the Office, but burning off a day to reacquaint myself to scouting books in the wild fells like time well spent… and just about the only reason I could gin up enough interest to leave the house with or without the Great Plague. 

I think this preliminary outing will be a bit of relatively close to home scavenging. There are (or at least there use to be) five or six spots in a 20- or 30-mile radius that regularly produced quality finds during the Before Time. That should be sufficient to scratch this very specific year-old itch for the time being. I’d like to go on a real ranging tour of some of my favorite shops, but that will probably have to wait until I have a bit more time built into the schedule. June and July will offer plenty of blank calendar space for searching out some of those more far-flung destinations.

I promise, this post isn’t doing justice to how thrilled I am at the prospect of once again pawing through shelves and containers of cast-off books. Yeah, I’ll still be bothered by the mask, but expecting people to stay at least six feet away from me is the kind of new normal I’d be perfectly fine hanging on to forever, so it’s a bit of a tradeoff there. I could have been out doing this all along, but shlepping out for books, didn’t rise to the level of essential business in my estimation. Much as I love spending time in whole buildings full of books, the possibility of being strangled to death by my own lungs was more of a price than I was willing to pay

After giving my booster the requisite two-week soak time, though, I’m willing to test my luck. Risk of minor illness is a far more tolerable gamble from my perspective.

On the logical limits of “treat yo’ self…”

I’ve had the same desk chair since sometime around 2008 or 2009. It’s a fine chair. It still looks good and isn’t held together by bailing twine or duct tape. After more than a decade of periodic use and now the better part of a year of daily use, it does seem to be starting to show its age, though. The seat is a little out of level, which can’t be doing much to improve the occasional nagging pain in my left hip. Otherwise, it looks almost new – no small feat considering its survived at least three household moves.

I only bring this up because I’ve started poking around online office chair retailers. There’s a phrase I never really expected to use, but as the plague rolls on, I’ll eventually have to look seriously at replacing the current model with something new. Knowing the terrain before starting my search in earnest felt like a worthwhile effort, though… especially since I picked my current seat out of a shed full of leftovers and seconds in someone’s back yard.

Years ago, surely following a fit of spending end of the year money before it expired, I worked in an office that had Aeron’s at everyone’s desk. Back then it was a slick chair, felt good, and was enormously adjustable for each individual. I thought maybe I’d look into getting one of those for myself, in the clearly misguided belief that like giant televisions, the price of fancy office chairs would decrease over time.

Boy did I call that wrong. 

So, am I actually thinking about spending something close to $1000 on a desk chair? They’re comfortable and it’s tempting. I find myself stuck somewhere between “treat yo’ self” and middle-aged disbelief that reasonable person would spend that much on a chair that doesn’t recline and vibrate. For now, the whole discussion is purely academic – to be shelved for further review some time in 2021 when my political masters aren’t fighting over funding the government one week at a time.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Dinner time. After eight months of mostly working from home, I can report faithfully that there are many things that annoy me about days I have to go to the office. I could fill whole steamships with that particular list, but I currently find none more objectionable than the fact that on days when I’m in the actual office, dinner is not on the table promptly at 5 PM. I’m just assuming I’m finding that more onerous that usual because  we’re racing towards the winter solstice and the early evening darkness shades just about everything these days.

2. Canine behavior. For two days this week, Jorah was inexplicably afraid of going outside. He’d get to the door and freeze, tail tucked and hunkered down. Given the great speed at which he would normally race out the door and cut a muddy swath through the yard, kicking up clods of earth in his wake, you can say it’s a highly unusual situation. I’ve spent most of my adult life with dogs, but I’m not sure I’ll ever firmly grasp what they’ve got going on between those furry little ears sometimes. I’m sure, whatever the reason, it made perfectly good sense to him at the time.

3. Black Friday. I’m getting a metric shit ton of ads for Black Friday sales. Is Black Friday shopping even still a thing? I mean even before the Great Plague, there weren’t many deals at a brick and mortar location that couldn’t be equaled or bested online… and in those few cases where it couldn’t, the convenience of having the item dropped directly on my front porch beat the marginal extra cost every time. Now, here in throws of a plague year, I’m amazed at the pretense that stores and malls will be filled with eager shoppers still waddling off their 7500 calorie Thanksgiving dinner.  Maybe I’m misreading the room, but as far as I’m concerned 2020 is the year of “if I can’t find it online, preferably with two day delivery, I don’t want it.”

Don’t go breakin’ my heart…

My home state of Maryland is moving swiftly towards ending the last of the COVID-19 related business closures. Now we’ll be able to go to the movies and concerts in addition to bars, restaurants, and retail establishments. It’s surely good news if you’re dependent on any of those businesses to make your living. Personally, it’ll still be a good, long time before I take advantage of most of these reborn opportunities.

I’ve never been what one might call “social,” but I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less during a plague year than sit in a movie theater for a few hours, belly up to the local bar, or go out for a long, lingering meal at a neighborhood restaurant. I wasn’t terribly keen on it in the before time and I’m even less so now that as many as one in twenty could be walking around blowing the plague out of their face holes.

Other people, I’m sure, will be happy to do those things. They’re welcome to it… as long as they keep the hell away from me afterwards. Though I don’t suppose that’s much of a break from my usual approach on interacting with people.

Fortunately, the bookstores and junk shops that I tend to haunt aren’t generally hotbeds of activity. Their few, but loyal clientele are well versed in avoiding other consumers. We were doing it well before anyone was worried about the Great Plague. Who knows, maybe while everyone else is busy going to movies and loading in to bars and restaurants during this long holiday weekend, I may even try to sneak in a visit to pick out a few new (old) books or find a hidden gem buried among shelves of junk… or I could just make a pre-dawn supply run and head on back to the house for four days on interrupted peace and quiet. Neither course of action would break my heart.