On 13 March 2020, a majority of Calgarians followed a sizeable portion of the planet's population and went into figurative isolation as COVID-19 raged across the world. So began a near-total removal from society that, for me, lasted 612 days (just over 1 year and 8 months). With rare exceptions, I remained at home, away from co-workers, friends, extended family. My window to the outside world was Zoom.
It ended this week when my employer -- my third since going into self-isolation -- decided that it was time for those who are double-vaccinated to return to the office. It was an opportunity for me to meet new people (I only started four weeks ago), even though it was still masks-on and socially distanced within the space.
While it can be easily argued that this wasn't perhaps the best move from a health perspective, being back amongst other humans is something I greatly missed.
I would never call myself a true extrovert, definitely not anything resembling a social butterfly (maybe more a vaguely pleasant gnat), so one might think that I would be among the last people to want to go back to sitting at a desk in a cold, sterile office.
Except that I very, very badly wanted to get out of the house. Even though we're not even six months into a new house, I still sit in a basement. A bigger room than previous, but alone and separated from everyone else, even those under the same roof.
For a year of my 20 month self-imposed sentence (yes, I did this to myself, more on that in a moment), I was working with a team who almost never turned on video cameras, leaving me to "talk" with pulsating lettered discs on my screens. I saw my family, that was it. Sure, I saw other people when I got myself out to do the groceries (my only real outing), but everyone wore masks, and as we've all come to know, people are very different with a mask. So I saw very few people.
To modify a saying, "seeing isn't entirely believing". Yeah, you can see someone's face, but you can't really see their body language. You can't see the subtle cues of trust or discomfort. You can't tell what someone's actually looking at (is it you, or are they watching a movie?). There's something about a physical person-to-person interaction that brings out so much more of a relationship. It's the difference between eating a taco, and eating a taco in the middle of Dia de la Muerte festival in Mexico.
(I've never been to a Dia de la Muerte festival, let alone one in Mexico. I'm totally delusional about what it's actually like, but give me this metaphor, okay?)
So after all the time nigh-alone, I might be craving actual human interaction. Which brings me back to this week. And coming to a physical office to do my new job.
As mentioned above, this is my third employer of the pandemic. I started the pandemic by helping Travel Alberta move into remote operations, where I was in charge of IT. Not a trivial task for most organizations, but thanks to predecessors, the lift to get everyone safely functioning at home was quite light. But being remote only aggravated some of my challenges, and I sought something more complicated, and definitely back in the world of software. Thus I moved to Shaw Communications, where I helped lead the team that build and maintained the customer self-service applications. It was a rewarding change, and I got to work with a few old friends again, but I soon found the pace to be ... wanting. Well, my pace, anyway. And then opportunity knocked.
Opportunity was an old colleague from my Critical Mass days, whom I'd worked with back in its early days. Adam was a web developer, like myself, and one of the first to attempt to open Critical Mass's Toronto office. That attempt fizzled out for various reasons, but Adam and I kept in (loose) touch over the years. And, somehow, he thought of me. Thus I came to work at Venture Park, Arlene Dickinson's landscape of investment and marketing agencies.
When the email came to return to the office, I was immediately torn in two. Alberta isn't ready to reopen. That aforementioned self-imposed 20 months of pseudo-imprisonment isn't due to our (often grossly incompetent, possibly to the point of actively trying to kill us) Government saying we couldn't go out, it's because it refused to do that, leaving it to those who chose to be responsible to save lives and stay home. Yes, I stayed home so others might live. However, we're also burdened with a signficant number of self-important ignoramuses who decided their own liberty was more important, and now we're slowly trailing out of Wave 4, over 3,600 dead from placating to a minority who would rather die than wear a piece of fabric over their nose and mouth. We've all heard the stories, and Alberta is no less terrible than some you've heard.
Holy crap, being around other people?! How awesome would that be? New people I had only seen on camera (Venture Park, at least, always had cameras on), be able to -- GASP -- sit with them, interact with them, and (as we did we did yesterday), have a drink with them!
Of course, there's all those other fears that crept in, too: Will I remember to shower regularly? Wear deodorant? (True story: I went months without wearing it. Never exerted myself enough where a shower wasn't immediately required.) Will I remember to act well around other people, and not come off as a complete, desperate freak?
One way to find out.
A week in, and I'm still employed, and possibly have even made a friend or two. I consider this a win, in my books, at least.
It's a change. A big one. For the last 20 months it's been keeping distance from everyone, staying away from all the things I've loved to do, avoiding large crowds (my kids are still ticked that I kept them away from the Stampede, and forbade Halloween in 2020), ensured that vaccinations were done as soon as allowed, not travelling (especially by plane) to my family's dismay, all in the interests of keeping people safe. All the people.
This is the failure of our modern world: disease spreads quickly, but stopping the spread means shutting down our activities, which means less profit for the companies and heaven forbid the companies don't make a profit. People die so that companies may thrive.
All of these things were going through my head on Monday morning as I set out for my 6 kilometre walk to work. Yes, I walked. I wanted to be outside (I've been indoors for far too long), it seems too close to drive, and while I could bike, I didn't know where to park it at the office. Oh, and transit would take me almost as long as walking.
And it's a stellar walk, too. Podcast on (BBC's 13 Minutes to the Moon, which I highly recommend if you like history and spaceflight), quiet time by the river, smiles from actual humans who are on their walks and runs. (The walk back, which is 200 metres uphill, is definitely less stellar, but it really gets the heart pumping at the pace I go. Which, by the way Google, you're a good 30 minutes over what I can actually do.)
A week in, and unless there's a fifth wave, I think I'm going to be a permanent fixture at the office. For all that I truly believe in the ability for people to be effectively remotely, I just can't see myself being as useful or as happy as I am as when I'm around other people.
Which ... well, I guess that means I now need to officially turn in my Introvert Card.