Quarantine Diaries — Chapter 6: Back to the Future

The biggest changes in society during this brave new world of social distancing involve three things that are novel to most people, but have been a way of life for us for a long time:  Bicycling, Working From Home, and the Meat Crisis.

With the difficulty of social isolation on public transit, the bicycle has had a resurgence of popularity for both recreation beyond walking distance and commuting to work, first for essential workers, and now for those returning to work or possibly finding new sources of work closer to home.  And, of course, the concept of working from home, common among self-employed persons before, but a rare and contentious activity for employees, is becoming a permanent fixture for all activities that were formerly done in rows of cubicles in an office building, using computers and telephones.

We’re retired now, so we don’t commute to work, but all of the above has been a way of life for much of our careers: for me, as a bicycle commuter since 1976, when possible, and for both of us with bicycling for recreation.  We’re also well-versed in working from home: for Judy, having her own craft business, and me, as both an employee and as an independent information technology consultant off and on over the last thirty years.  And, we’ve been on a meatless diet at home for at least 15 years, so that’s not an issue for us, either.

So, how does one cope with these new facets of daily living?

Bicycle commuting:

It’s important to have a sturdy bicycle, but not an expensive one, for commuting.  You most probably will need to leave the bicycle outside your workplace, so it shouldn’t be too attractive, and have a good lock.  Kryptonite makes some of the best locks: they are expensive, but so is replacing  your bicycle multiple times. Two locks is better than one, and should pass through both wheels and the frame, if possible, and attach to something at least as difficult as the bicycle or locks to cut through. Don’t leave anything on the bicycle that is easily removable without tools, or it will be removed by someone else.  If you are fortunate enough to have a place to store your bicycle inside, do so.  If you have a wire basket on your bike, simply wheel it in the store with you shopping, and use the basket for a shopping basket.  Shoppers are allowed to bring their own wheelchairs and electric carts in the store.  Your bicycle is your “mobility device” if someone questions it.  At the very least, if you can’t use your bike as a shopping basket, ask the store manager if you can leave it in the cart area, as long as it doesn’t block the store carts or mobility devices.  it is less likely to be tampered with or stolen if it is inside the store.  The risk of theft is probably the biggest argument for not using a bicycle for transportation.  If more people want to bicycle, it will become necessary for employers and businesses to provide secure parking spaces for bicycles.  When traveling by bicycle, we’ve sometimes had “valet parking” at hotels, so it wasn’t necessary to take the bicycle to the room.  Ask.

A commute of 3-5 miles should be easy enough for anyone starting out, as long as you don’t push hard and are in reasonable shape to walk a mile.  It’s a good idea to practice in the evening or on a weekend and scout out a safe route before joining the rush hour commute.  The first time I commuted to work on a bicycle, in 1976, I nearly fell down getting off the bike, my legs were so shaky.  But, by the end of the week, cycling five miles was a perfectly normal thing to do.  For a commute of this length, with a moderate pace, your street clothing or work clothing and a helmet should be sufficient.  If you use the commute as part of your cardio exercise routine or it is farther than 5 miles, consider getting specialized clothing meant for bicycling: jersey with rear pockets and a bit longer in back to cover your back when hunched over the handlebars, padded shorts or tights, and shoes made for bicycling, with a stiff sole over the pedal axle.  Fingerless cycling gloves and safety glasses/sunglasses complete the wardrobe, and add a lightweight rain jacket or cape if it rains often where you live.  Get fenders fitted on your bicycle, and white and red lights to replace or augment the reflectors that came with your bike.  Rechargeable LED lights are best.  Use them, even in daylight: bicycles are hard for drivers to spot in traffic, even if they are looking for them, which few are.  Carry at least a frame pump, tire spoons, and an patch kit, and learn how to patch a tire.  C02cartridges and an inflation tool are light-weight and convenient, but I’ve never used one.  A handlebar bag to carry your wallet and lunch is convenient, otherwise use your jersey pockets.  A water bottle in a cage on the frame is good for warm-weather commuting of more than five miles.  Most commuting is along the edge of roadways, where there is lots of debris, including metal scraps and glass.  Allow plenty of time to get to work.  With practice, one can repair a flat in 5 to 10 minutes, but it usually takes longer.  Overall, you may find that bicycling to work takes no more time, and maybe less time, than taking public transportation, for almost any length commute.  In my work years, my commute varied from a kilometer to nearly 30 kilometers.  The shortest commute took less than 4 minutes, the longest commute took between 65 and 90 minutes, depending on weather, season, and time of day.  In many cases, there was no public transit.  In other cases, bicycling saved as much as 45 minutes to an hour over taking available public transit, even for a short commute.

Working from home:

Set up a place in your house that is your “work place,” separate from where you sleep and eat, and preferably not where other family members will gather.  Avoid distractions.  It helps to “dress for work” to get into the proper attitude for work.  Keep regular work hours, even if you work on projects that don’t require time constraints.  One of the biggest problems with working from home is that you never leave work.  It helps if you can create an office space that you can close up when you are “off duty.”   Working from home usually requires a good computer system, high-speed Internet access, good telephone service, and a good printer/scanner.  Your employer may require you to use a Virtual Private Network to connect to the office computer network, for security reasons.  You should have a computer dedicated to work, to which no other family members have access, and answer the phone professionally during working hours.

When you work from home, if you use a laptop and cell phone, like most of us do these days, you can also work from other locations. You can take breaks during the day to run errands or engage in exercise programs, as long as you have the option to do so, and still get in the work hours and produce the results expected of your employer. You can use the time you would have spent commuting to start early or continue working late, take a long lunch hour, and still have evening time for your family or relaxation.

Our rather messy office for two. In our case, there is not just two computers, but four, plus several others that are “appliances,” without a direct monitor/keyboard attachment. Using a home office gives one a much broader choice of layout and decor than the “cubicle farm” modern office building.

In the early 1990s, I would take a portable computer, modem, printer, and fax machine for a week at a lake resort, get up early and work from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm (most of my clients were on the east coast, and I was on the west coast, so the times were convenient), then spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying the resort amenities, for a working vacation.  There was no Internet or cell phones in those days, so everything was dial-up to company computers, land-line  phone calls, and FAX, but it was still possible to work remotely.  It is much easier today, and virtually seamless.  All you need is a laptop.  Internet access via WiFi is free at most hotels, and at libraries and coffee shops.  Depending on your service provider at  home, you may have Internet access via hot spot points throughout most cities and businesses, using your home Internet account credentials, or, for more secure access or when WiFi isn’t available, you can “tether” your smart phone to your laptop with the phone charging USB cord, or the WiFi hot-spot built into your phone, and use your cellular data plan, if your provider supports that feature.  As I told my clients when we moved from Montana to Washington State 10 years ago, “You know, that server room down the hall, that I seldom go into, where the systems I manage from my desk are located?  I can not go into that room from anywhere on the planet.”  I don’t need to be in the same building to do my job.  In my private practice, I manage and program web sites located on servers “somewhere else,” or, as we say these days, “in the cloud.” Everything is connected, from everywhere.  As the phone company ads used to say, in the quaint old roaring 1990s, “FAX from the beach?  You will…”  FAX is  pretty much dead, but you can browse the ‘Net, email, or upload your report from the beach or anywhere, as long as your batteries hold out.

The Meat Crisis

Another effect of the virus pandemic showcases a major problem with food production in America:  meat packing plants are sweatshops, with low-paid, overworked staff in crowded working conditions.  Many have been shut down or are in the midst of a major reorganization because of the high percentage of infections and death among the workforce.  Subsequently, meat prices have skyrocketed.  Or, so we’ve been told.  We haven’t visited the meat market or the fresh or frozen meat aisles in the supermarket for many years, and haven’t intentionally ordered meat dishes at restaurants for nearly as long.

Yes, you can live and thrive without bacon for breakfast, baloney sandwiches for lunch, and steak, chicken, pork chops, or hamburgers for supper.  To help break the habit, there are several look-alike substitutes available in the produce aisles:  seitan or soy sausages, textured vegetable protein “ground beef,” and meatless patties flavored and colored to look and taste like hamburgers or chicken.  And, for those vegans who eschew any animal products, dairy-free cheeses and yogurts, along with “milk” in the dairy case made from almonds, coconuts, soy, or oats.

Honey-sesame tofu, with brown rice, just like the restaurant, but manageable serving size.

But, we prefer to cook plant-based recipes from regions of the planet where meat is either scarce or avoided for religious reasons.   We’re not purists by any means: we continue to consume eggs, along with yogurt and cheese made from cow, sheep, and goat milk, wear leather shoes and belts, and aren’t particular about other byproducts of the food animal industry, since substitutes aren’t readily available.  And, of course, dairy products don’t involve killing living beings, though their living conditions are most certainly not ideal in the industrial food production system.  We know how to use tofu, aquafaba, chia, flax, and other egg substitutes used for binders, ground nuts and seeds as substitutes for cheese, and have tried plant-based cultured products. But, we live in a country where the dairy industry is subsidized, so cost is also a factor in the food budget that takes precedence over any objections we have to factory farming practice as applied to animal husbandry.  Even if prices rise significantly, there just aren’t enough of those substitute items in the supply pipeline for large numbers of the population to switch.  We’re even experiencing a shortage of beans, the universal hedge against food shortages overall, but, for us, a daily staple.  Should the meat crisis deepen, I’d suggest everyone check out the many world cuisines that provide flavorful dishes that don’t contain meat, and learn to cook them for at least a few meals a week.

Home-made pita, baked on a stone in a very hot oven.