December 31st: New Year’s Eve
Having given up alcohol and wicked food years ago, New Year’s Eve is a non-event for us. Typically, we wish each other “Happy New Year,” insert our silicon ear plugs, and go to bed on time for a snappy start to our exercise routine the next morning.
Keeping the pressure on myself to continuously bring new things into our distorted, constricted lives in the pandemic, in November I’d asked Bill to select and order a set of Lego bricks. Neither of us had ever touched a Lego, so it would be a fresh experience, a new way to play together. It however, turned out to be more of an exercise in “parallel play” during which we shared the space to do individual projects on New Year’s Eve.
Ta-da! Our first Lego project.
I was adrift but knew I wanted to go up, to build vertically, and started with the bag of red and brown bricks in front of me. It was quickly apparent that these were indeed bricks designed to build solid, blockish structures, not the delicate spires and arches I imagined. I shifted to making a lower, asymmetric, structure with the goal of it just barely not tipping over. Eventually, my guiding story was that it was the rock cairn that Picasso would have built.
When we both seemed to be getting a little bored, I suggested that we take turns adding a piece to a 3rd project. I immediately repurposed Bill’s 2nd train car base by attaching a large, green platform asymmetrically to it. It felt a little bit like a dare, a challenge to his train motif. Undeterred, Bill used many of his turns to construct something that resembled a catapult on a firm base while I added random shapes, futilely hoping to inspire creativity.
I went off to shower and upon my return, my rock cairn had acquired wheels and all 3 separate projects had been connected like train cars. We were quite amused with our final product but didn’t see more Legos projects in our future. But upon further consideration, Bill suggested he might construct a temporary holder to keep a stack of napkins dry while on the kitchen counter. Walmart had accidentally given us a large package of paper napkins with a previous pick-up order and we needed to keep them handy so as to use them up.
Barb's cairn became a caboose & the joint project connected our individual undertakings.
A New Trainer In Town
Quite unexpectedly, the approach of 2021 brought with it a new fitness trainer for us and that was Bill. Somewhere along the way, he tapped into a surplus of energy within himself and he was eager to divert a portion of it to our wellness routine. For decades, I had been the sponsor of essentially all of our activities and I was the one who rallied to make them happen over and over again. Suddenly, Bill was available to take-over at least part of that role.
He began by gifting me with a subscription to Apple’s online fitness programs, which were an immediate hit. Several programs required exercise equipment that we didn’t have, like stationary bikes, but there were plenty to choose from that we could do with our old stash of now-sought-after equipment, like dumbbells.
Some of the workouts were as short as 10 minutes, which were safe places to start because they didn’t require much commitment and would gently introduce the new moves. They were even brief enough that we were willing to do one when we returned from a 10 mile hike. An upper body workout made a nice pairing with a big hike and a 20 minute Latin dance sequence worked well after a bike ride. It was a nice gimmick to draw us in to do what we weren’t initiating on our own.
As Bill hoped, the Apple sequences were a great fit for me. I’d lost strength and mobility with all of the buttock and lower body pain I’d endured over the last year and I was failing to get the needed restorative workouts underway. Sadly, the 10 minute strength workouts were just right because they prevented me from injuring myself. Upon completion of one, it didn’t feel like we’d done much but hours later, I’d begin to feel the tingling and mild soreness that suggested otherwise. It was the ideal way to start my new program without derailing it with injury as so often happened to me with weights.
Using an Apple fitness sequence with the trailer stairs up & the tablet inside the door at our new fitness corner.
The “House Party” dance steps and moves were totally unfamiliar to us, were incredibly fast paced, and were given without much instruction. We flapped and flailed and presumed it would be more possible in a month if we hung in there. In a 20 minute routine, I would get 2 or 3 steps correct and on cue. Having our speed walking pace shoot-up in less than a week was an unexpected reward from the therapeutic frustration of trying to follow along and motivated us to continue humiliating ourselves with the dance workouts.
On the next 2 relative-rest day, sunrise, speed walks, we substantially improved our pace and continued with our longer, 4 mile route. We brought it on home with a 15:04 minute/mile, then the next time out, a 14:35 minutes/mile pace without jogging. We were flabbergasted both by our speed and that it wasn’t especially hard to do. However, we had to stay very focused for the last mile because we had only been doing a 3 mile speed walk and we felt fatigued when we hit that point. But we were hardly phased: our heart rates rapidly dropped when we hit the trailer door and we didn’t need to take time to recover. The immediate experience in our bodies once we stopped the exertion was like we hadn’t done anything.
We presumed that neuromuscular patterning changes triggered by our inept dance performances explained our sudden improvement. Bill had been experimenting with stance and gait changes the last several months, hoping to induce his feet to move faster, but hadn’t seen a change in his overall pace. I had made those changes years ago and so was convinced that my sudden improvement in speed was solely because of the tempo changes nudged by the dance routines.
After 3 precipitous drops in our pace, from 30 seconds to a minute each, we plateaued at a 14:40 pace after 6 dance workouts in just under 2 weeks. We were slightly disappointed of course, hoping this roll would last forever, but we were stunned that it happened at all, stunned that we’d taken 2 minutes/mile off of our time. We will be content to “fill-in,” to routinely exceed 4 miles/hour for an hour on flat terrain. It’s like adding a new sport to our repertoire. And it’s all the better that we hit this new peak in performance simultaneously.
This amazing interlude motivated us to keep doing the rapid-fire dance routines, no matter how pitiful and ridiculous they felt. Striving and not succeeding is enough to get those neurons to fire a little faster. Our base fitness was clearly there, it was a firing, a sequencing barrier, that had been holding us back and we had finally broken through. I’d hoped to be doing 4 mph pace routinely in 2020 but better late than never. Who would have guessed that dance would tip the balance?
Getting stronger fast with the chin-up assist device on the chin-up stand.
Success breeds success and more ideas bubbled-up to enhance our fitness during the pandemic. Bill pulled-out a jump rope that I bought years ago that he never particularly liked and kicked-out 3 sets. I was stunned over the next several days that the action didn’t irritate my knees, like it did years ago. I had to wonder if the extensive myofascial release work that I began on my quads in 2015 hadn’t fixed that issue but had gone unnoticed for jumping.
On our weekly bike ride, I remembered a great hill-work interval training routine I discovered years ago when reading about altitude acclimation and came up with a nifty plan to revive it. It was a delightfully simple concept and in the past, we used the absolutely easiest version: run uphill 1 minute, walk back down for 2, and repeat for a total of 10 times.
There are always several barriers to doing this hill intervals workout, all related to “overhead”: a 10-15 minute warm-up and cool-down were prudent and then there was the challenge of finding a very steep, convenient hill. Noodling all of those requirements while riding, I realized that we could eliminate 100% of the overhead by inserting the hill running into our favorite Palm Springs bike ride because we rode by the perfect, treacherously steep, residential neighborhood hill. Towards the end of our Saturday ride, we could hop off of our bikes, switch into packable shoes, and whip-out the 30 minute routine, or as many minutes as we could tolerate. The warm-up and cool-down were built-in with the bike ride. It was a perfect: 30 minutes for a 30 minute workout instead of an hour.
Andreas Hills Drive is the place to go to “do the hill” though we do part of it 10 times (fresh snow on mountains.)
The Changing Faces in RV Parks
Our new Palm Springs neighbor, Bryce, was an excellent example of the huge shift in RV park residents during the pandemic. He and his wife are in their early 50’s and had to dismantle their Las Vegas trade-booth business in the pandemic; Las Vegas suffered the highest unemployment rate of any large metro area in the US. They severely downsized, including selling their home, and bought one of the few, older mobile home units in our Palm Springs RV park. Almost everyone in the park is in some sort of a trailer that moves but there are a few older mobile homes that have literally grown roots: they have regular plumbing connections like a house. Bryce immediately began renovating the old unit with a profit upon resale in mind.
Only a few years ago, this was an “Over 55” establishment and they would not have been allowed to stay, even for a night. Our RV park’s target market was snowbirds like us, retirees, many of whom spend 6 months per year in the desert, many of whom were dedicated golfers. Six months is the magic number: if you stay longer, the State of California claims you as a resident and you must pay California taxes and establishments, like RV parks, give deep discounts for 6 month stays. When we began coming to Palm Springs for the worst of the winter weather, our park was accurately dubbed as being full of “retired Canadian cops and gay guys,” but this year was dramatically different.
Canadians could fly, but not drive, into the US during the pandemic, which meant that none of the Canadian RV park snowbirds arrived. A few of our park’s Canadian couples that leave their rigs year round in Palm Springs and fly in did not because of dire warnings from their government regarding limits on their health insurance if they contracted the coronavirus. Given that an estimated 300,000 Canadians come to Coachella Valley each winter, the mix of the snowbirds dramatically changed everywhere we looked. And of course, we heard reports from their friends about their extreme distress in wintering at home for the first time in more than 20 years.
Our new neighbor Bryce, his dogs, & his gluten-free beer.
A new wrinkle hit RV’ers in December when California severely restricted travel. Another new neighbor, Texans, said “We’re stuck here” when I asked how long they were staying. I suspect that they weren’t actually tethered in place but were faced with 14 day quarantines if they crossed the state line. Two snowbird hiker friends with second homes in the desert had planned long-weekend get-aways in their trailers but the California shut-down “leisure travel parks” before Christmas. Our RV park wasn’t affected, presumedly because of people like Bryce, for whom this is their residence.
The roller coaster that the nation and the world rode the first week of January, beginning January 3, was like no other. The New Year’s Eve cheers shared together for a better year in 2021 had hardly faded when our President had us screaming and howling in shock and disbelief like amusement park guests. Unfortunately, there was no exit ramp off of this ride. Listening to the tape of his hour-long phone call bullying Georgia’s Secretary of State to change the election outcome was incomprehensible, beyond our wildest nightmares.
We were still reeling from eavesdropping on that character-revealing call when we were jerked into Election Day in Georgia for the Senate run-off, which was a brief return to a strangely twisted normalcy. Those elections hadn’t even been called when news of the terrifying riot in the Capitol began unfolding. The fatalities and planned executions of Pence and Pelosi and possible collusion from members of the police and congress intensified the surreal quality of it all. And on it went with discussions about Pence invoking the 25th amendment and impeachment over the next several days.
The Chinese proverb “The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away” kept coming to mind. Amidst all of the hideousness, the instability, and the threats to so many, I detached in order to survive. I carefully followed the evolution of the many events, but emotionally separated myself from it. It was too heavy of a load to carry after the depleting effects of being almost a year into the pandemic.
At the close of the endlessly crazy week, one that was described as “It’s been quite a year this last week,” it was an inconsequential a bit of news that shattered my protective shield. It was learning that our annual keto conference, “Low Carb Denver,” was canceled due to the pandemic. Of course, it was only sensible, but we had shifted out of “grieving losses mode” and now there was this. On the scale of the horrors of the last year, it was trivial but for us, streaming that 3 day conference was as exciting as international travel. We would debrief the piles of new research for weeks, if not months. We usually made several significant changes in our diet based on the information learned each year.
In the process of understanding my grief from the loss of our March conference, I compared it with my other annual favorites and was shocked to see that on one scale, it was #1. Spending the summer in the Italian Dolomites hiking and biking definitely took top billing with the 4 weeks we stay in the Grand Canyon over the span of 5 weeks being 2nd. But for the time and money spent on the Low Carb Conference, it is by far the highest yield for the buzz we get from it. The live-streaming option, which we prefer over being there in person, costs us $130 for 2 and we spend approximately 20 hours watching the presentations. We have the option of replaying them at a later date as well.
An olive tree topiary: who knew??
The blow from our treasured conference being canceled was a double whammy: the lost information stream and the lost sense that the losses had stopped occurring. At the end of December, we’d buoyed ourselves at every opportunity and in early January, Bill was singing “It won’t be long until this is over” because of a recent prospect of getting our first inoculations in February. But of course, that excitement outstripped reality. It wasn’t almost over and we needed to re-armor ourselves for more losses.
Obsessing About the Vaccine
The slow roll-out in the US of the actual inoculations with the amazing, new, coronavirus vaccines was a crazy maker for us. “Which month might we get them?” and “Will we be excluded because we aren’t California residents?” were pressing questions for us. The shortage of information in early January compounded our frustration. The fact that the number of vaccines given compared to shipped ran consistently around 25% didn’t help either.
Along with the all-important, staying-alive benefit of receiving the vaccine as soon as possible, we had logistical issues for the 4+ months ahead of us to resolve. Our year-old, Palm Springs RV park reservation only ran through the end of February and it was an open question as to whether we could extend our stay but asking to be “penciled in” wasn’t an option, it had to be “Yes” or “No”.
Getting close after creeping along for about an hour.
In addition, I had 2 doctors back home who wanted me to complete several studies and tests but I was refusing to go indoors for them before I was vaccinated. I would need time to schedule them and the follow-up appointments, but didn’t feel I could make any commitments until our vaccination timeline was known. Fret, fret, fret.
We were startled that the media’s tone changed when interviewing professionals involved in the vaccine distribution: it went from inquisitive to menacing early in the first full week in January. The gloves were off, the patience was gone, and the interviewers were pressing for action. At the end of the same week, Biden announced that he would lift the lid on vaccine distribution as soon as he took office. I agreed with the critics that it wasn’t prudent from a scientific perspective to release the reserved second doses to be used as first doses, but applauded Biden’s position for the socio-political consequences—I thought it would get things moving and it did.
Over the weekend, comments were appearing in the medical literature about vaccination personnel throwing away doses in deference to following guidelines and that vaccinators should ‘lighten-up’ and start going for numbers instead of adhering to priority lists. The following Tuesday, a week after the media tone shifted, HHS secretary Azar basically endorsed Biden’s plan, lying through his teeth in saying “We’d always planned it this way.” The lies weren’t a surprise but the rapid policy changes that seemed to have been triggered by public pressure were.
We immediately shifted from forlorn frustration to near mania. Concurrent with the changes at the national level, the Riverside County coronavirus vaccination website that had seemed all but dormant, began shifting like a big change might be building, reminiscent of a volcano about to explode. We’d been trying to interpret the rumbles to understand what might be brewing.
Almost there, but some unexplained delay caused our line to stop moving.
The next day, my exacerbated back pain made it an easy decision for me to again walk on the streets instead of the trails, which would keep me connected. If appointments became available, I could complete the forms for both of us while Bill was hiking out of cell range for most of the day. I would do that every day until we secured appointments.
Bill diverted some of his hike prep time that morning to subscribing to an alert system that would notify us of any update to the county’s website. It unfortunately notified by email, not text, so it was a small upgrade and ultimately, failed to improve our efficiency.
The plan had been to check the county website twice an hour but both days we were sometimes checking it every 10 minutes. We sensed that there would be a big policy shift in vaccine eligibility and availability and that it could come suddenly but didn’t know if it would be within hours or a week. I walked with my phone in my hand and hit refresh obsessively; at home, I worked on one screen and kept a 2nd screen with the vaccine website loaded inches away. It was blatantly obsessive but it was as close to a life and death situation as we had come and getting the vaccine as soon as possible was our #1 priority.
I hit “refresh” on the county website loaded on my phone one more time while I was walking about 4:00 pm on January 13th when I discovered that appointments were suddenly available. I was doing laps and had just gone by the trailer park; coincidentally, Bill had just texted me that he was back to the truck at the trail head and in cell range. His first reaction was to brush off my urgent text as “Oh, by the way” and then realized that my message was THE moment we’d been waiting for. Amazingly, we returned to the trailer park entrance at the same time.
As he drove us both the last little distance to our trailer, I was crest-fallen to discover the contradictory information on the county website when I read further. One place said we were eligible to register for a vaccination appointment this week, another area said we were not. It felt like a false alarm, an adrenaline rush and call to action for nothing.
One priority list on the county website indicated that our new, upgraded position on the Phase 1B, Tier 2 group was not yet being vaccinated. Elsewhere, on the just now loaded new appointment schedule, they showed “Age 65+ Only” on a drive-in basis at a single site. When I opened that appointment file, bold red letters declared only the Tier above us was allowed to be vaccinated. I hesitated, then remembered that the next time I could access their forms, I intended to complete them as reconnaissance and as a practice run. I wanted to be poised to speed through the real thing when it was time, so I proceeded like it was.
Bill opted to call the help number for clarification on the discrepancy regarding who could sign-up, then reconsidered, and started registering while on hold. Amazingly, when I finished my practice run with the long form, I received a confirmation for my appointment in 3 days! Bill picked up his pace and secured an appointment for the same time. When I began filling-out the form, 9 of 9 appointments for that 30 minute slot were available; when Bill began a few minutes later, it was down to 4 open appointments. Clearly, others were deciding like us to attempt to register despite the bold red notice that we weren’t allowed.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
I sent a text and several emails to hiker friends as soon as we’d finalized our appointments. One reported back 3 hours later that she had missed out, that all of the 5,600 appointments for the next 4 days were filled. During that 3 hour interval, Bill read online that the governor had tweeted that he was opening vaccination up to the 65+ crowd in California, which was about 350,00 people in Riverside County. Bill also noted that the announcement had been picked up by the TV stations on the evening news. Only 1,800 of the 65+ group in our county had previously been vaccinated. (A bit of research the next day revealed that Governor Newsom had opened vaccination to 65+ at 1 pm. Lesson learned: we should have been following him on twitter.)
We felt both lucky and that we had also made some of our own luck by pressing ahead to secure appointments in that window when we were officially ineligible. We’d just moved into the top 1% in the nation if all went to plan. Actually, we’d soon be in the exclusive club of the lucky 0.5% who had been vaccinated.
We’d been increasingly scouring the online sources for news on the vaccine distribution guidance and Bill had settled on the Riverside County website as the place to be. We tracked the national news and combined it with our regional information. Once there was some hopeful movement in the news, we combined the best our obsessive-compulsive behaviors to be as close to the front of the line of 2.5 million of people in Riverside County as we could be. (Riverside County is the 4th most populous county in California, the 10th most populous in the nation.)
We were stunned: it was 1 month minus 1 day when we made our appointments for our first dose of the Moderna vaccine. It would be 1 month plus 2 days since then when we received our first inoculation. Absolutely incredible!
Bill received his Moderna vaccination first.
We had always assumed that receiving the vaccine would be the deal maker for returning to Italy in the summer of 2021 but at this juncture, it appeared that Europe wouldn’t yet be ready for guests by then. We were revisiting our nonexistent list of options for the summer in the States that would keep us out of the heat and wildfire smoke at hiking venues when the news flash came in from Azar about the federal reporting errors on the vaccine supply—there was none. We panicked; Azar resigned 5 hours later.
We worried that our clinic the next morning would be shut-down with the news that the flood of vaccine doses that Azar had said the states would immediately receive wouldn’t be coming. Matters were made worse by the Riverside Co website being down for hours, cutting us off from updates. So close, just in reach, but suddenly being vaccinated in the morning was in question. No appointment cancelation emails arrived, so we headed out at 7:30 the next morning as planned.
We were in line to receive our vaccine on Saturday morning, steadily creeping along in our truck, when Bill said “Right here, you’ll find the highest concentration of type A’s over 65 that you’ll ever see.” Indeed, you had to have been on your toes to get an appointment to be there. The woman who drove by shouting “Take off your mask and free your face” had targeted the wrong crowd. We were surprised that the county sheriffs were packing so many guns but appreciated their presence given her verbal assault. They were only directing traffic but their presence made a clear statement and she didn’t stop to heckle.
Tears welled, not from pain but from joy.
Unfortunately, the county changed their policy and we would have to repeat the same highly competitive process to secure an appointment for the second dose in a month instead of being given an appointment the day of vaccination as they were previously doing. We had hoped that the hard part was behind us but we’d need to sustain our vigilance so as to monitor the policies that were sometimes changing daily.
In hindsight, not knowing where to turn to receive the vaccine appeared to have facilitated us securing it earlier than most of our friends. When I shared our success with making appointments, the word “patience” kept appearing in the email replies. Almost all had been assured by their primary care providers that they would be contacted when supplies were available and that seemed good enough; they would wait. Our physicians were a thousand miles away and had sent no such reassuring letters, so we went into predatory mode and won our prize.
The day after receiving our vaccinations, we learned that we should have been required to prove that we were residents of Riverside County, though temporary residency was sufficient. We listed our RV park as our address and may ask the manager to give us a receipt for our 3 month stay for our second inoculation. It would be the first of many refinement for securing our final inoculations.
It was boring terrain for hiking but we relished the movement after hours of sitting to receive our vaccines.
There had been so many junctures in the last weeks at which we wanted to believe that the overwhelming external chaos in our lives had peaked, that we were going down the other side on our way to a new normal, but it just hadn’t happened. The roller coaster ride had continued.
We received our first dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine on January 16th and had expected to have crested our personal version of the pandemic crisis and awaited the hoped-for calm after the 20th, but getting the vaccine was only a stop along the way.
Being informed that we’d have the same challenges to receive the second dose as we did the first, diminished our sense of relief, it threw us back into crisis mode. There was still a mound of struggle to get through in the coming weeks. But, a few days later, we learned that the Moderna vaccine was more than 80% effective a little over 2 weeks after the first dose, which was deeply reassuring. And in those few intervening days, we’d re-tooled a bit for our search for the booster dose, raising our spirits. Maybe we had summited, maybe the deep trauma to our beings from the pandemic crisis could begin healing now.
The arrival of Inauguration Day, of January 20th, was our next opportunity for subduing our distress, for quieting the many pains in our nation and in our beings after the failure of other milestones, like Election Day, to do so. The sad irony was never far from our minds: if the prior management of the pandemic had not been a fiasco, we likely would not have been released from the political chaos on January 20th.
"Hang on tight" were still our watch words.