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.

Getting groceries or: Maintaining the fleet in being…

In this era of the Great Plague home delivery of everything is a trend that seems to have taken wing. For a lot of products, I’m a big fan of home delivery – I’ve had a steady stream of books, dog food, and other household goods showing up on my doorstep since long before the plague swept everyone else indoors. 

I was asked this morning, why my love of home delivery didn’t include using something like Instacart to bring on groceries. The answer is more complicated than it really should be, of course. 

I’ve tried pick up grocery options in the past, but was never quite satisfied in the produce they selected or the substitutions made. It’s hard not to like the theoretical convenience of driving up, calling a number, and a cart of groceries showing up. Ultimately, I’ve mostly forgone the convenience of pick up or delivery because, not surprisingly, I’m fussy and like things to be “just so.”

That’s really just subtext, though. About two weeks before the plague caught fire in the public imagination, I made a grand stocking up trip – laying on enough of my favorites to last two or three months if conditions absolutely precluded making trips out. Now I’m mostly shopping every 7-10 days because I have a tortoise who likes fresh leafy greens and to replenish those items I’d drawn down from the stockpile – because holding it at its peak has a value all its own. 

Proper naval historians will throw things at me for this, but in some ways I think of my personal supplies as maintaining the value of a “fleet in being.” It’s a theory, widely popular among naval powers in World War I, that suggests the mere presence of a powerful fleet extends a strong influence on events simply by existing – making it unnecessary for the fleet to engage in a decisive battle. Keeping the bulk of my supplies intact (with proper rotation), gives me options should further unforeseen supply disruptions (a la toilet paper) happen as the plague runs its course.

So there, in a few hundred words, is way more than you wanted to know about why I’m still getting groceries and why I’m doing it myself. 

You’ll be glad you did…

You can’t miss the funny, funny toilet paper memes. I got it. Large numbers of people pummeling each other in the grocery store isles is good humor, I don’t deny it.

I’ll be the first to agree with you that panic buying is stupid. With that said, I think it’s stupid for reasons different than “coronavirus doesn’t cause you to die of shitting yourself.” For me, the rolling of eyes is triggered more by looking at people who don’t already have a “safety stock” of items essential to keeping a household running for a few days, a few weeks, months, a year or more depending on what your risk tolerance and budget will support.

I know some real, honest to God end of the world prepper types. I’m not even close to being in their league. I’ve got no interest in taking it to that level. They’re legitimately trying to be prepared for the collapse of civilization. It’s not out of the realm of the possible, but I’m not entirely convinced I want to hang around for that party. My personal cognitive bias tends towards the belief that over time, things will trend towards that status quo… that tomorrow will be more or less the same as yesterday. I could also be 100% wrong about that assumption.

I’m extremely comforted in knowing that if, for some reason, I needed to button up Fortress Jeff for a period of a few weeks or a month or two, I could get along without any significant impact on my standard of living. We could probably hold out a bit longer than that if I did a little rationing. It’s the level of insurance and peace of mind that I’m comfortable with maintaining over the long term.

Because I’ve done a little advance planning and bought extras a few items at a time, there’s no need for panic buying. My regular shopping trips involve simply replacing what I’ve used from week to week to maintain the baseline – usually a few canned goods, some fresh mean and vegetables, dog or cat food, and so on. Keeping a bit of extra on hand just makes good sense. When everyone else is panicking and buying up 54-packs of Charmin, you can smile, make another cup of coffee, and get on with your day.

Next time you make your weekly grocery list, add a few extra items that are good for long term storage. Buy stuff you know you’ll use anyway. Try having a little bit of a plan that extends beyond the next three to five days. At some point, because of flood, fire, snow, or pandemic, you’ll be glad you did.

Slowing down…

November and December are officially noted as the “festive” season here in much of the western world. Now, I like the holidays well enough, but I don’t spend weeks or months preparing for them. I don’t try to drag them out to the point where Christmas becomes a holiday that consumes three weeks before the 25th of December and another week after it. Maybe I’m not in the minority there, but it seems that way based on the increasing number of people who are out, about, and meandering slowly through neighborhood shopping venues.

My response of choice in this scenario is to avoid those places as much as possible. It’s got the unintended side effect of having dramatically slowed down my pillaging of thrift shops and used book stores, In fact I’ve brought nothing into the inventory for the last three weeks and will probably go another five weeks before resuming the chase. Since most of the places I frequent share strip mall space with other stores, the volume of people is mostly enough to leave me uninterested… unless I know someone is hiding something uniquely interesting, in which case I’d likely make an exception.

The last months of the year are when I can make a little progress on churning through some of what I’ve already put into the holding pen. That feels good. Having lived with myself for so long, though, I also know the arrival of the holidays is also a bit of a warning sign… because it means ’round about New Years, I’ll be chomping at the bit to get back after it and have a budget line I haven’t touched in two months with which to indulge my favorite minor obsession.

There are worse things to do with your time and money, I suppose. Someday a bookcase may collapse and kill me, but hey, at least it’s not heroin.