Getting half way back to before

A year ago this week we were scrambling to find masks. So was everyone else, which meant what masks there were had been largely spoken for. Overnight people began constructing their own masks, if they were lucky enough to find material, had a pattern and had a sewing machine or a set of steady hands.

For some of the part-time seamstresses on our hill, mask making became a pandemic preoccupation for a while. Generous neighbors provided a few to get us started. We frequently wore them wrong and we often wondered what the point was since we (thought) we didn’t have covid-19. I wiped lots of inside surfaces, probably unnecessarily. For a month or two became fanatic about washing my hands, which now seems to have been largely unnecessary since the covid-19 seems to be transmitted almost always through the air. I still took daily walks for the most part but routinely gave broad berth to strangers, often walking on the other side of the street. It was all new and more than a little scary. Staying home, if you were so fortunate, seemed the only safe option.

My daughter wondered how this pandemic compared to the Cold War. I must have been traumatized she thought, growing up in the Cold War age. But I never had a “duck and cover” exercise. And I was a kid for much of it, not understanding until I was nearly a teen that a nuclear barrage could end life (including my life) as we know it quickly. I was too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest we came to actual nuclear war. So I didn’t think about it. Covid-19 though is different. Nuclear annihilation was an abstract worry. Covid-19 though could easily be acquired and could kill you. No wonder most of us tried to be careful.

Today I went walking, one covid-19 shot in my arm doing its thing, and another scheduled for May 1. I still wear a mask outdoors, at least if I’m within fifty feet of encountering someone else. Our masks now mostly have adjustable straps over the ears, making them easy to don and doff without ever really leaving your head. People still regularly wear masks outside, but it’s becoming less common. Some people are openly flouting the rules, which I’ve never seen enforced. But it’s looking that at least outdoors there is little risk of acquiring covid-19 from a passing stranger, particularly if there is a steady breeze.

On Tuesday I had a virtual physical (which is something of an oxymoron). My doctor said she doesn’t usually mask up outside. Of course, she is fully vaccinated and got her first shot in January. She’s starting to eat at restaurants again, at least when they offer outdoor dining. She said there are still risks, but for the vaccinated they are pretty minor. It’s fine to hang out with other fully vaccinated people. It’s fine to go traveling if you follow standard precautions.

She encouraged me to live life again, and I plan to starting on May 15. But even with one shot inside of me I am feeling less anxious. One of my major concerns now is whether I might be an asymptomatic carrier. Studies are underway to find out, but so far it looks promising. It’s likely that the Moderna vaccine I got will keep me from being an inadvertent virus spreader.

So hope is in the air. The United States did a wretched job of controlling the spread of covid-19, and in many states largely Republican governors are arguably pushing a fourth wave. But twenty percent of our country is now fully vaccinated – a remarkable number that few other countries can match. As I documented, getting the vaccine was a hassle but every day it’s becoming less of one. It’s likely that children will soon be eligible too. Soon it will only be the dogmatically stupid who won’t be protected from the virus.

We’re not quite making plans, but we are penciling stuff in. Last year my family decided to cancel a planned reunion at Acadia National Park in Maine in August. This year it is still off, mainly due to scheduling conflicts. Some of us hope to meet in the autumn, perhaps in Virginia’s Tidewater area where my sister has a house. My wife has plans to attend a convention in Las Vegas that same month if it looks like it will gel.

Many Americans are waiting for the other shoe to fall. It could be a covid-19 variant that triggers another round. The Pfizer vaccine looks like it will handle the emerging strains. It’s still  question on the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. But the good news is that vaccine manufacturers can quickly tune their vaccines to work with emerging variants. So there are likely to be booster vaccines to let us continue to live a more normal feeling life.

But the shoe could wait a year or two before dropping. While the vaccination campaign here in the United States seems largely successful, much of the rest of the world is still struggling to even acquire a vaccine, in some cases because the countries cannot afford it. The United States will have far more vaccine than it can use, so it should give it away. The Trump Administration’s contracts specifically disallowed this, but perhaps this can be reversed. It’s not entirely humanitarian to do so, because if new strains emerge and get large enough it could start what will feel like a Phase 2 of the pandemic. It’s in everyone’s interest to get everyone vaccinated if possible.

Life though is unlikely to return to what it was. Some aspects of our post-covid world will look a lot like they never left. There will probably be periods when we’ll be told to wear a mask. Going to the office may remain purely optional for many. Once businesses discover the cost savings of downsizing  their office space, others will have to follow to maintain their competitive edge too. Telework will probably become the default if it can be used. Reliable municipal networks will become the norm. Telework will bring other benefits: presumably more free time and less pollution from less commuting, and fewer people travelling to work.

For a year we’ve been forced to innovate. It was not usually fun and in some cases it was very stressful. But in some ways this adaption is good: we are fitting in better to a changing environment that we largely changed. Both we and nature may ultimately prosper from this yearlong game of musical chairs.

Buddy, can you spare some vaccine?

Basically, I’m waiting to be let out of home confinement.

Okay, I’m not actually confined. I can leave any time I want to, but do I want to? Yes I do, but practically I can’t. Going anywhere in the covid age entails risk, but a lot less risk if you are inoculated against the covid virus.

I’ve been in covid jail for about a year now. About once a week, sometimes more often, I hit a store. I generally go early to avoid crowds, and I’m not too proud to use senior hours if they are offered. And of course I wear a mask, which was not true a year ago when we didn’t understand that covid-19 is principally spread through respiratory droplets in the air. If weather permits though, I do make it a point to walk outside every day, and that helps a lot. I should keep the mask on all the time but the truth is I often take it off, and don it when I am within fifty feet of someone else. After all this time, I still don’t like breathing in my own warm air.

Like most Americans I’m sick of this, but unlike a lot of Americans I’m not stupid enough to ignore the perfectly sensible precautions like limiting my exposure to crowds, wearing a tight-fitting mask and not dining in restaurants. Naturally introverted, I tend to like my own company better than someone else’s. Online social networks generally let me feel connected. I still meet people, including neighbors, but it’s almost always in a Zoom call.

But I want out of jail. What’s making it frustrating is that a number of my siblings are getting or have been vaccinated. My daughter is in public safety (911 operator) and completed her Moderna shots in late January. She’s only 31. I’m more than twice her age but I am waiting and more than a little jealous when others seem to be able to get their shot somehow but I can’t.

I almost qualify as a senior citizen. I’d need to be 65 but I don’t hit that milestone until next year. Perhaps if I were unhealthier, I could get it. I’m sure I’m overweight, but hopefully not obese. Obesity is one of two factors that usually win you a shot. But you also need something else. My wife qualifies. I won’t name her two factors, but one of them is an underlying medical condition. So she’s been trying to get a shot, so far with no success.

Frankly, Massachusetts is making quite a mess out of vaccine deployment. Citizens of the commonwealth give our governor Charlie Baker decent marks for his handling of the vaccine’s rollout, but I don’t know why. I think he’s messing it up pretty badly. There’s a state website but no way to register for a shot on it, though they do provide links to some places that may offer the shot. You learn about shots mostly from friends and since you don’t meet them in person anymore, you learn about it from your online friends. By the time my wife tries, the few slots are gone. Out here in western Massachusetts, there are few mass vaccination places and you can’t count on any appointment you do snag on being fulfilled. The doses mysteriously stop coming from the federal government. CVS is starting to offer shots, but they open their system once a week and they fill up almost instantly.

This shouldn’t last much longer. There is a new Johnson & Johnson vaccine now available, and President Biden has talked another vaccine manufacturer into producing the J&J vaccine. He wants all Americans to be eligible by May 1. This sounds like a worthy goal, but as we’ve discovered so far being eligible doesn’t mean you can actually get a vaccine appointment.

I’m not picky. I’ll take any one that’s available. The J&J vaccine is getting a bad rap. It’s simpler, being once and done. It doesn’t require super cold refrigeration. It’s also newer, so likelier to work against the newer covid variants. You have a higher likelihood of getting the disease anyhow, but your symptoms will be milder. You won’t go to the hospital. No one has been killed from the vaccines.

While being generally introverted, I do miss occasional socializing. It’s true when walking I can nod or say a quick high to some stranger, but it’s not quite socialization, particularly when you are behind masks and generally all you can see of their features is their eyes. Aside from my wife, there is only one other person I can say I am socializing with: my hair stylist every six weeks. We both wear masks and she cleans up before and after. It’s not quite enough.

Pre-pandemic, the men on the hill where I live would go out for a monthly dinner. That ritual ended a year ago. I’m in a 55+ community but I’m one of the youngest people here. I’m guessing about half of us here on the hill have had at least one covid shot. But not me or the spouse. I may be the last one to get one as I don’t have the necessary preconditions and I’m too young. Yes, too young at age 64!

While we’ve remained alive and healthy, staying so has been a hassle, just less than it is for many. There are no kids whose online learning we need to micromanage. I consult and can meet with clients virtually, and I won’t pick up the covid from working upstairs.

But a lot of the things that I took joy in are gone. No going to see movies, not that there are a lot of new movies to see. No travel anywhere. We see our daughter generally at least once a year, although she is 400 miles away. She moved recently. She had to do this “adulting” (as she calls it) all by herself. We’d probably have otherwise been down there to help out.

So we’re all learning self-reliance, which should I think make Republicans happy, but instead it seems to drive them insane. Socializing in person with their kind seems to be critically important. Most seem impervious to the risks they are taking. About a quarter of Republicans won’t even bother to get a covid shot. If 530,000 deaths in our country haven’t convinced them of their vulnerability, nothing will.

Meanwhile, I wait and increasingly feel put out. Covid-19 will probably never go away completely, so it’s something I’m going to have to live with. But I can at least look forward to mask-less encounters with others who get their shots … if I can manage to get the shot.

Mindlessly profiting from a pandemic

You’ve probably heard that the pandemic has made the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer, at least here in the United States. The U.S. gross domestic product actually fell in 2020, but according to Quicken our net worth shot up 17% in what seemed like the worst year of our lifetimes.

Just four years ago we went through the expense of getting estate plans done. Here in Massachusetts, if you die with over $2M in assets, you are subject to estate taxes, unless you create estate plans that effectively shield a lot of money from estate taxes. Since the state does not index the amount for inflation, it seemed a sensible thing to do. I remember telling the missus, “It looks like our net worth is likely to be over two million dollars before we die.” Four years later, we’re nearly there.

Should I be thanking the coronavirus? Maybe I should be thanking the Fed (Federal Reserve). When the coronavirus hit and markets tanked they went to work pumping up the economy with lots of newly created money. Fortunately, it used the money to buy assets, so it’s not like they threw the money down the drain.

Crazily, it worked, at least for keeping the stock market overvalued, where we had plenty of investments. Nationally our economy otherwise collapsed. The stimulus intermittently doled out by our government helped some, but it’s clear that all this wasn’t enough for most people who live paycheck to paycheck. In many cases, there was no paycheck. Unemployment benefits sweetened by Uncle Sam helped. For most working folk at best it kept them from collapsing into debt and homelessness. The latter is largely a result of federal legislation that makes it hard for landlords to kick out many tenants.

Then there’s the undeserving: me and those of us who weren’t hurting to begin with. We got stimulus too: $2400 in the first tranche, $1200 in the most recent one and possibly more with the new bill going through Congress. Having nowhere to spend it we did what most of the rest of the reasonably well moneyed did: saved it or bought more stocks with it. Being retired with no mortgage or any debts, and with the pensions coming in monthly plus selling some of our retirement portfolio, and being unable to spend most of what was coming in, we were effectively saving 25% of our income.

And although neither of us has to work, I still do some consulting. And crazily 2020 was a banner year too, netting me nearly twice the income from it than it did in 2019, thanks mostly to one new client. There is no chance of contracting covid-19 from this work. It’s done in my upstairs office over the Internet. We went to the store maybe once a week at off hours, heavily masked but that was as much risk of catching covid-19 as we bore. In reality, covid-19 was never really a threat to us. No one came to visit. We had nowhere to go. One of the few things we spent more money on was services like Netflix. There was a lot of time to kill. Stuff we needed mostly got delivered.

All this while the effects of the pandemic were quite obvious. There’s a public middle school next to us. You would see a handful of cars in the lot, but no children noisily screaming or school buses going in and out. Those who weren’t masked more often looked like they were hit by a bus. All this plus Donald Trump was making everything exponentially worse; hospitals and ERs were overflowing and people were dying, about 450,000 of us last I checked.

I’d like to credit all this to my brilliant financial talents. But really I did nothing out of the ordinary. I just stayed home, deposited those pensions checks regularly and spent a whole lot less. The only pangs of regret I felt is that we couldn’t get on a cruise ship or take an exotic vacation. All that was in our budget. (We actually did take a cruise in early March 2020, came back okay, but it was scary. It had been paid for in a pre-pandemic world, and it was nonrefundable.)

Through my career I felt like I had earned my salary and then some, so there was no reason to feel guilty living a cushy retirement. But I often do anyhow. I didn’t realize until fairly recently just how big an advantage it was to be male and white, which I was. At the time I didn’t feel like it meant much, but now I see friends who are people of color generally dealing with an entirely different reality.

So as much as I’d like to think I rose on my own talents, in reality I was lofted at least in part on an unseen rising tide of white privilege. Not all my white male peers were so lucky, of course. Some really got the short end of the stick. Heck, my wife got downsized in the early 2000s and never recovered her previous salary, despite doing similar work. But she could ride on my income and prosperity.

In retirement I am finding the ways to squeeze a nickel even harder without trying very hard. The tactics have changed since the days of my parents, who lived through a Great Depression. Rather than darning socks, I find new income in the darnedest places, like a 2% cash back no annual fee credit card. I went on a savings hunt and found, at least for a while, that I could lock in a 2.5% APR CD at an online bank. We also get income from our solar panels, about $2000 a year, paid by companies that use our green offset to pollute. And really, we save money because we are taxed too little. We could and should be paying more in income taxes, but Republicans have decided we shouldn’t have to. The only tax that increased this year was our real estate taxes, now nearly $10K a year. A city assessor came through the neighborhood. On the plus side, he reassessed the value of our house upward by $76,000. Add that to our net worth.

And we’re trying new things. We let go our old financial planner and found one closer to home, with an interesting model. They find out portfolios that match our risk tolerance and add their fees to that. When I mentioned I could no longer get a 2.5% APR CD, they suggested a bond fund that would likely beat that. No, it’s not FDIC insured, but it’s very low risk, and we should be able to net at least that for our cash assets.

We probably won’t be buying a second home or time shares, but I’m wondering if this is how someone like Mitt Romney spends his free time. Income just seems to keep compounding. I used to struggle to put aside a little money with each paycheck, now I don’t know quite to do with it all. It seems surreal and wrong somehow, particularly when so many are suffering.

Yes, we have given more to charity, quite a bit more this year, and helped bail out a few friends who were seriously struggling. Even four years ago when we were putting together our wills, we decided that we were unduly fortunate. When we depart this world, about half of our estate redirects money to charitable causes.

Half of my side of the estate is currently earmarked for scholarships for people of color, to be handled by the estate manager. At least in death I can partially rectify my white privilege and help elevate those who were denied it.