<< Adventures in bookmark parsing Back to index... test script tag >>

Minor Gripe

2021-09-29 -- Fragments from a pandemic

Chris Ertel


One word, neatly conveying my experiences of world and of self for near two years. What follows are pieces, images, moments, reflections–some absurd, some short, some glib, some pretty awful–on a truly bizarre time in my life.

The timeline is, to my recollection, monotonic. I cannot be certain of all, most, or perhaps any of the dates.


We’re watching a dragon invade a storefront, the brazen clang and crash of cymbals causing us to wince only occasionally as we enjoy the proceedings.

Some friends have invited me to enjoy a foot massage and dinner in Houston’s Chinatown, and I’m out wrapping up the evening with them. The foot massage I was expecting had turned into a full ordeal, including scalp and body work. The following dinner added a warm fullness to the relaxing bliss of muscles and skin, hinting at a torpor to come.

Leaving the dessert cafe and final stop of our adventure, we have come across the dragon staging itself outside of the storefront, its helpers getting into position and swaying back and forth slightly in anticipation. At some signal, it embarks.

It is sometime in early February, and it is wonderful to be out exploring the world with friends, hugging and laughing and taking in life.


We’re hurtling down the road as I hold Cissy and numbly stroke her ears and try to be reassuring as Amanda drives. My old roommate and I had returned to a firm humid wall of stench, my girl’s insides having decided to vacate all over the concrete floors of my apartment. The mess hadn’t bothered me, the smell too overwhelming to really process.

The pink mucus and blood and unidentifiable gelatinous bits of dog ichor, though, have freaked me right the fuck out.

We’ll spend about a couple of hours at one emergency room, and Cissy will–with as much dignity as an old girl her age can manage–try and put up with us, shaking and leaking onto the floor. There’ll be nothing I can do for her until we finally find a place that isn’t backed up, and then I’ll gladly turn over a month and a half of rent in hopes that they can fix her.

It’ll work, they’ll diagnose and treat a bacterial bloom in her small intestine, and while she’s in the equivalent of puppy ICU I’ll be spending a cold, confusing weekend camping with my new girlfriend somewhere in Sam Houston National Forest. Come Sunday, our third date will be over and we’ll be retrieving Cissy. At the time, it’ll seem like an odd escalation.


Backchannel mutterings.

Surgeon friend relays some work briefings, protein designer friend gleefully points out something about R values. I don’t understand why they care about insulation efficiency.

Steak night at the local beer garden and the vendor makes a crack about not wanting to catch the “kung flu”. Occasional headlines talking about some new flu or flu-like thing out in China, some place called Wuhan. Swine flu, bird flu–less than a decade ago Houston even had a bit of Ebola.

This is probably nothing.


Early March. Somebody in Fort Bend has come down with this COVID-19 thing, so this flu thingy is now definitely here.

More backchannel mutterings. Cousin of a friend, officer in the military, relays to family and friends that there’s something coming and planning is going on. Several of us quietly start buying a little extra when out getting groceries. A few more cans of beans and vegetables, some extra water, basic hurricane-style prep.

Through another friend, a bit over a week later, we see the Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show gracefully shut down early. This is a Big Deal.

I buy some more food, and some wire shelves to put it on.


Girlfriend has finally convinced me to let our dogs meet. I adopted Cissy after she got in a fight with a pitbull, and though she won the consensus was that she was dog aggressive. I’m unhappy about this meeting but I trust my girlfriend. Can’t date if our dogs can’t live together, and Cissy is getting old enough that I want to make sure she gets some social time in her golden years.

Curled up on a chair watching my girl slowly learn to play, muzzled and corrected by my girlfriend’s larger pit mutt, I draw on all of my panic masking so my dog doesn’t key off of my terror. I am freaking out but my girlfriend squeezes my hand and talks me through what I’m watching. The girls’ tails wag as my stomach wrenches.

Later in the apartment, Nala the pit mutt barks Cissy off her couch, follows her and takes her bone when she shuffles off, and then proceeds to chew on it after pointedly turning her back on my dog. Pack order has been established, and Cissy chills right out.

Slightly later, in the world of us evolved monkeys, HISD shuts down schools for a week or two. I invite my girlfriend to weather whatever’s coming for a couple of weeks. Better safe than sorry, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that something big is approaching. She and her girls move in.


On March 19th, Governor Abbott decrees via executive order that we’re shutting down all schools, bars, and restaurants. Gatherings are to be limited. Texas’ response to what is now a pandemic is late, but at least it’s inconvenient.

I make an extra trip to the store. Chinatown has bulk goods for cheap, and they don’t look at you weird for having a mask.


Word comes down that there’s probably going to be a proper lockdown in Harris County. I make one more run to the store, piloting my cart slowly through aisles. My girlfriend is concerned about my touching goods in the store and being out in general, but I’ve got a mask and gloves and that’s about what I can do at the moment.

I’ve already stocked up on canned goods, and so in reverse order I’m grabbing things with a shorter shelf-life. We’ll want to go through those first, working our way down to the longer-lasting foods. There isn’t a lot of competition for what I’m picking up, and the contested goods–bleach, toilet paper, and so forth–friends and I managed to grab a few weeks in advance. Somehow, we’ve been about two weeks ahead of everybody else on the consumer behavior.

The store is eerily quiet, especially for this Fiesta in this part of town. I’ve done hurricanes before and after in Houston, and it doesn’t compare. Everybody is wound up, nobody is talking, and there’s a thick apprehensiveness that has seeped into everything. We all look at each other warily, and give wide berth. The shelves are distressingly barren for certain things.

People are scared, and we’re all here that are too poor or too careful to spend our money on delivery services for groceries.


At this point, all channels of normal media and social media are full of people claiming armageddon. I’ve noticed the issues around basics like toilet paper. I’ve stopped going to the store. Any food, though, is good to have, and if we end up not needing it we can send it to soup kitchens later.

The bar on the bottom of my apartment building has no patrons, but the skeleton crew for closing it up is present and so I’ve made a stop after walking my dog Cissy. The manager and I play inventory badminton. I call out an item–“lentils”, “garam masala”, ‘brown rice”, “bulk flour”–and she replies with whether or not Sysco has it.

After about a half-hour I’ve gotten my order in to Sysco, and tipped the manager generously for her assistance. I even throw in a restaurant-sized box of wood-pulp grade toilet paper because why not? My girlfriend and I are now plugged into real logistics. Enterprise solutions. We are food secure.

Hearing of this success, a friend does the same but at larger scale, and will eat lentils and rice for the coming two years.


Work is a bit of a disaster.

I’ve been fully remote for five years, and have been in rough spots and small scrappy startups both before and during that time. That, along with the prep work my friends and I have been doing, has calmed and settled me. The way I figure it, the only thing worse than a global pandemic is being broke and evicted during a global pandemic. My girlfriend depends on me. Our three dogs depend on me.

Many of my coworkers are leaving the office for the first time and have not prepared for it. The idea of having a home office or space to work is novel. Supply chain issues extend to things as mundane as webcams, headsets, and Ikea furniture. This has caused all kinds of stress. There is counter-stress as the org tries to adjust. People are tense and confused. There are breakdowns in public channels with dull regularity.

There is friction between those who have the mindset required to execute work in this madness and those who do not. I’m worried about less experienced coworkers and coworkers more prone to rumination. I’m worried about a limited-time window to ship a product, which if we miss would make our business unit look like a luxury at a time when everyone is talking about tightening belts. I’m worried these kids–for at this point, I’m suddenly feeling my age and experience–are gonna get laid off and go homeless during a pandemic and I’m scared to hell I won’t be able to keep it from happening.

I comment on this up the chain, and the response comes back down to try and hold things together.

In public I try to keep people focused on the work and ignore the outside world. In private some of us work very, very hard to keep things going and are met with resistance and sabotage.


May 25th, some stupid fucking cops in Minneapolis manage to cause the death of a guy who had a fake twenty.


Four days later I see cops in Minneapolis arrest a CNN camera crew live on the air.

Protestors are one thing, but journalists? What the actual fuck?

I get a sinking feeling.

We’ve known for a long time–hell, Dad had stories about Daley and the cops during the DNC protests in ‘68 when he lived in Chicago–that cops are at best a neutral presence and at worst a hostile occupying force. I’m not concerned by the display of force, no more than usual anyways.

What bothers me is that the optics are so incredibly bad: you’d normally expect a sergeant or somebody with media training or whatever to run up and defuse the situation, to go redirect Officer Fuckhead to kindly go apply jackboots somewhere other than directly on live television.

This sort of lapse is a sign that either a) they don’t have anybody wise in charge or b) they simply don’t care.

Neither is good.


They’ve shut down the light rail, and so I walk north. The Houston summer isn’t in full swing, but we’ve got something that’ll make us miserable until it gets there.

I’ve ducked out of work, put on my PPE, taken a camera, and left my phone. My backpack is full of bottled water, masks, and gloves.

I join and am joined by others, singletons and pairs and a few small groups with the strong feeling that today is special, that today history is being made. I think back to Occupy Houston near a decade prior–hadn’t succeeded then, but perhaps this time would be different.

We walk along Main, heading towards the mayor’s office and downtown, rivulets of hope in a great confluence towards the heart of the city.

Along the way, the homeless cheer us on from their encampments and bus stations and rail stops. We share water with them. I can’t help but notice none are joining us–they know the heat, and have shade and free water and no cops hassling them. They’re probably smarter than us.

As we get closer and closer a mild din can be heard from where the march is taking place. Buildings wear plywood masks at street level to hide their faces. Protocol is similar as for hurricanes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the boards are the same ones. A few buildings have pleas to avoid vandalism painted onto their boards; it will turn out for whatever reason that there will be negligible property damage in the course of Houston’s protests.

We pass by at least one stealth-wealth condo, and I can’t help but wonder what the crowd would do if they knew about who all lived there. By virtue of their choice of building–and accompanying security measures–the inhabitants have done more than wonder. I’ve been up there before, via a discreet elevator at the back of a fancy grocer. The view is great, if you can afford it.

The route for the march goes from Discovery Green down to City Hall and back. This part of Houston’s downtown has skyscrapers and parking garages, all boarded up or gated closed, and the street is lined with cops. The street is a valley with man-made walls and a sea of bodies–and even the loosest grasp of tactics suggests that this is one huge chokepoint.


I dive from my vantage and join the sea, offering water and masks to people. I take in the scenery as we move. The cops are sometimes posing, sometimes talking, sometimes glaring, but mainly they just watch the crowd.

Large city dumptrucks are parked at every intersection, and with a start I recognize their purpose: they’re probably trying to prevent another Charlottesville. I peel off to talk to a city employee in a high-viz jacket, and it turns out he’s one of the truck drivers. We chat a little, he mentions he just got over Covid, and I politely but hurriedly rejoin the march.



June continues, the situation at near-boil in many places.

In Buffalo some poor old codger gets knocked over by advancing goons. Much like the CNN arrest, no attempt is made to not appear comically evil.

But it’s not all just cops cracking heads on hapless civilians.

One of my friends in Seattle complains loudly on the backchannel about the CHOP, an occupied autonomous zone.

It’s unclear what exactly their purpose or goal is, and my experience with Occupy leads me to be skeptical of any useful media coverage. From my friend we’ll hear about multiple shootings, including a case where CHOP security decided to light up an SUV with two kids in it.

CHOP by these accounts seems to be descending into progressive self-parody of the sort we all suspected the media and powers-that-be of deliberately engineering and misrepresenting during Occupy. I’m suspicious, but the additional corroboration from a friend in the area makes me wonder.

On the other side of the country, back in New York, protests similarly continue. At least one person I met during the previous years’ stay in Brooklyn is directly involved in organizing, using Twitter and a police scanner to help protestors avoid cops.

In Dallas and Austin protests continue, and I hear reports from my sister of cops successfully routing a bunch of protestors on an overpass; this reminds me uncomfortably of how closed-in I was during the march downtown. In Austin, more folks are getting hurt and shot by APD, leading to one particularly poignant picture whose source I’m not aware of:


My friends and coworkers living in Austin are concerned, though they thankfully are mostly out of harm’s way.

Houston by contrast has settled back into its old ways, modulo the virus’ shadow. Thank God.


It’s July and in Portland protestors have successfully laid siege to a federal courthouse. There are credible reports and sightings of unmarked vans kidnapping protestors and rioters, which is starting to bring me back to my disgust at the abuses of power during Katrina. What the hell is happening to my country?

The apartment is dark, my girlfriend is back at her place, and my friend calls me from Portland. He’s talking quickly, crying and mad and afraid.

People he knows have been dealing with the cops, and it’s getting ugly. Parts of the city are in near continuous turmoil. In a repeating cycle of words, near aphasiac, he tells me of a good friend who caught a less-than-lethal round in the forehead and is now invalid. This hurts. This hurts a lot.

He and I both have family members with severe brain damage, and the idea that anybody would voluntarily do that to somebody, much less through sheer negligence in application of force, is beyond understanding. My stomach boils with a black bilious rage, but I’m thousands of miles away and can’t even see how I could help.

We talk into the night, and further details emerge. He–like others–has been watching lots of footage to identify violent counter-protestors, Proud Boys, and so forth. While I’m not sure if this is producing intelligence that is useful to authorities, as I pace in my small apartment kitchen listening to him I become quite sure that he is basically binging memetic toxic waste. For hours and hours and hours he does nothing but watch protestors and cops and counter-protestors hurting and maiming each other. This has gone on for days, weeks. He barely sleeps during his vigil.

My chest hurts and my eyes burn with tears because I can’t help him. I can’t sprout wings and fly to him and hug him and hold him and tell him everything is going to be okay.



It’s August, and at the height of civil unrest in this century and one of the largest pandemics in the modern era I am no longer employed.


I’ve moved into my new, cheaper, and larger apartment. I’m not in the heart of the city anymore but that’s fine because Covid has ruined that. Nightlife is not what it once was.

I file for my new business, and soon I’m a real company. I have ascended–just need to avoid blowing all my savings until I either find work, launch a paid product, or get a job again. At least I’ve got several months before I need to be worrying.

I was prepared for an economic collapse due to the pandemic–I simply hadn’t expected it to be my own!

Still, the principles are similar and so I’m not too stressed. That said, there is the feeling of locking myself into a space capsule with limited air, water, and food and the hope that I’ve calculated the orbit correctly to get me back to a habitable planet.


I write a particularly grumpy letter to my partner’s school board.

They’ve decided to bring the children back, and her class size is well over 30 including both in-person and remote. This puts the woman I love directly in harm’s way, both mentally and physically.

HISD and related districts are engaging in a farce. I’ve recently seen adults at a company have severe trouble adapting to remote work, and her school is expecting remote learning to work for first graders? Who actually believes this nonsense?

Even worse, these are kids that are already behind due to the truncation of the spring semester and due to being part of an economically disadvantaged district. These are children who cannot count to ten and in many cases have “baby hands” that cannot manipulate pencils–at least until they are trained via art projects and activities with manipulatives. They of course are well-suited to the fine manipulation of online learning platforms, right?

Laid bare is the fact that these kids are kept in school because their parents are required to be at their jobs. Education is a strictly incidental activity on the path to making sure that the working poor are kept mobilized and not distracted by things such as childrearing. Even more cynically, the state of Texas in its infinite wisdom has decided not to budge on a policy of punishing schools for absentee students–a child with Covid in the classroom is worth more in tax dollars than one recuperating at home. It is no surprise that school nurses and then teachers begin falling out in record numbers.

The board congratulate themselves over various programs and awards, and read my letter during a televised meeting. I get a grim satisfaction for stating the obvious and knowing that it has been hear, but it won’t change anything.

The meeting quickly moves on to other topics, eager to move past an interruption of self-delusion.


I bid on some cryptominer power management work, and get paid for writing an RFP. I sadly do not land said RFP, but I appreciate the beer money.

Given a heads-up by a friend, I try to get some contract work help with the election. It doesn’t go anywhere.

My savings are intact but are becoming smaller than before.


The longest phonecall I’ve had with my dad in a decade is arguing about politics and Covid. He and Mom have been both oddly compliant with healthcare stuff around Covid as well as critical and skeptical of government efforts.

After many hours, we wish each other love and drop off.


Yellow-orange spray patters down from the ceiling, and my laser printer drips juice. My friend is scolding me–justifiably–for almost blinding him with the cap of a bottle. I’ve gotten into brewing kombucha and the secondary fermentation of carrot shards and tumeric is far more vigorous than expected due to the root vegetable’s sugar content.

I still hold the bottle I was burping when internal pressure Byford Dolphin’ed its contents all over my office and blasted its caged cap into the ceiling. I am equal parts horrified, annoyed, and amused.

Ultraviolet light from the window will eventually fade away the tumeric’s color, but through the middle of the following summer I will observe yellow stains every time I look up while resting on my office couch.


The election comes, and my partner and I watch it with some friends at our apartment over drinks. However gnarly the year is, it looks like sanity is starting to restore itself to the country. Trump’s out, and the rest will just be boring procedural stuff the following January.

I get news that an old friend of the family, a fellow whose fencing club my dad and I had helped frame and drywall and electrify, has passed from Covid.


It’s early December. I’ve gotten up to walk Cissy, fed up arguing with people on the internet for the day.

Cissy collapses in the hall on our way to the dog park, making sad noises. She starts leaking foul-smelling fluids, but this time it’s worse and darker and redder than her inflammation. It’s a textbook GI bleed.

Over the next week or so I’ll work with the vet and figure out that she’s probably got stomach cancer. It’s a one-in-four chance that she doesn’t, but the surgery to figure it out would make her last months miserable.

I might even risk it, but I can’t ignore the fact that it’s also tremendously expensive. Without work coming in, I can’t afford spend the thousands of dollars in surgery and blood and labwork.

I spare some time to curse the circumstances and people that led to this situation, myself included.


The sun shines down on and cooks the fake grass of the dog park while a light breeze blows away the usual smell of dog piss and plastic.

Cissy is thoroughly stoned on the opiates I’ve given her but is still tottering around, tail wagging as she plays with my partner’s dogs. Nala the pit mutt–almost as old as Cissy–playfully clacks her teeth and seesaws on stiff joints after Cissy, who drowsily acknowledges the attempt. Luna the Catahoula Leopard Mutt wiggles and rolls on the turf as her sisters cavort.

I hold my girlfriend’s hand and take it in, trying to etch it into my memory so I won’t forget. We sit on a bench and watch the old girls tire out and hunker down next to each other to lounge in the warm rays.

Cissy gets another fifteen or twenty minutes, her last in the sun.

We leash up the trio and bring them back down, and before too long are joined by a nice and kind vet moonlighting as Charon.

The terrible truth: the final thing a loving and responsible owner will do for their pets is kill them.


We won’t be making it home to my family for Christmas. I won’t put them at risk, given their age. There’s no vaccine yet, Covid can be sneaky, and if anything were to happen I couldn’t bear it having been something I could’ve prevented.

I spend it with my girlfriend and her sister and brother-in-law, and the food is excellent. I make a vegan gumbo z’herbs with palm oil and flour, and my partner’s brother-in-law makes some wonderful steaks and ribs. The rest of her family has come down with Covid, but they are hearty stock and will make a full recovery.


Missing Christmas with my parents this year means that I will never again open presents with my mother, who in about eleven months will die of cancer.

I am unaware of this fact, and it is a mystery if the cells that will finally kill her have started forming yet.

I don’t know that I’ll only see Mom two more times.

She’ll be visiting us sometime the following spring with my dad and despite her brain damage she’ll spend hours talking with my partner who is patient and loving and kind and hasn’t had sixteen years of increasing infirmity scratching away every memory of the woman who raised me.

She’ll see me again, maybe, as her body is in cascading failure, skin bulging with unprocessed fluid and yellow and bruised, limbs making uncoordinated jerks and mouth flapping open and shut, occasional groans and gurgles coming out in lieu of speech as she lies in the ICU. I won’t have my sister or father accompanying in her room, because of pandemic restrictions still in effect.

I’ll be sitting by her bedside trying to figure out what I can tell her that I hadn’t gotten to in the decade and half since I moved out.

I won’t be able to think of anything of substance, and she probably won’t understand what little I do come up with.


Green and purple and blue and red flowers burst and bloom against the night sky, bright blossoms popping up and fading away from pyrotechnic gardens across the city.

Sitting on walls at the top deck of the tall parking garage, my friends and my partner and I have almost full coverage of the Houston skyline and prime choice of firework displays to pick from.

Several families are up here too, couples and kids and cars all spread out at a safe distance.

There’s a feeling of triumph, of hope, a slackening of the noose of entropy that has been slowly drawing tight since the beginning of the year.


We’ve made it through Covid, and vaccines should be coming out soon. We’ll be getting ours in a few months in the repurposed husk of a Neiman Marcus, and though it will take some argumentation with the staff we will both get to join the long line of people trying to move on with their lives safely.

The country has not devolved into permanent race riots and police action. In less than a week, there will be a demonstration and riot during the certification of the election results, but in spite of this the organs of government will continue functioning and before long the elected officials will resume their brinksmanship and drama.

My partner’s class is finally starting to settle in and her district has stopped a lot of their futile curricula work. She’ll wrap up what may be her last year as a classroom teacher without incident or infection.

In a few months I myself will have completed many job interviews, some good some bad, and will be set up to start as a principal engineer at a campaign tech firm. I will be there for at least two years, making friends and learning more about canvassing and telecommunications than I frankly ever wanted to know.

I’ll adopt a German Shepard with a shattered hip, and though she doesn’t fill the hole left by Cissy she will forge her own spot in our pack, limping and grumbling and hopping the entire way.

My partner and I will move into a rental house together, merging our households. Nala will pass shortly thereafter, spending her final moments in a sunbeam and resting under the blue sky on real grass while accompanied by her sisters old and new. Her behaviors will become second- and third-paw in later generations of our pack, as we continue to adopt and care for dogs.


All of that is in the future, of course…tonight, we stand together with our loved ones and chosen families and drink champagne and laugh and shout and watch as our city and our people gaily celebrate the start of a new year.

We have survived.

Epilogue (2023-04-30)

It’s taken me something like a year and a half to write this, and it’s been two years since my last blog post.

The following year, 2021, turned out to be troubled as well. The disorganized pullout of American forces from Afghanistan, the January 6th riots, the Astroworld stampede, additional protests and riots following January 6th, and all manner of other things like the whole Gamestop short debacle.

It was also the first year I’d given a conference talk, the year Mom died, the year my partner went full-time on her business, and so many other things at the personal level.

2022 was quieter than 2021 and 2020, but that’s not a high bar to clear.


I’ve left out a lot of other things, other moments–lover’s quarrels, stupid moving misadventures, online arguments in a community I once felt at home in, general meltdowns from folks broken by the times, family drama, conflict between friends–that I’d love to have included by did not have the space or patience to.

Some day I might write some more reflections on the mental-health aspects of 2020. I saw some incredibly unhealthy behavior among friends and acquaintances, especially in online spaces, and I suspect we’ll be dealing with the fallout of that for years to come.

The massive switch to remote work and the slow trickle back was fascinating to watch, as was the sudden deployment of contactless payment for POS systems.

I can’t capture everything, can’t record every detail and thought and happening.

I figured that I’d convey a loose timeline as a series of vignettes with commentary, and unfortunately I fear that I’ve done this imperfectly due to disjointed writing sessions and long delays picking up the pen. I know that in a few years there will be a canonized narrative around the first year of Covid, but I figured I’d try and snapshot what I could before the memories twist and fade and distort.

Mostly, I’m just incredibly glad to finally have it out there and be able to write again on any other topic. The world has moved on from Covid, there have been exciting developments in life and technology and I want to give those coverage.

There’s a future after the pandemic, damnit, and I intend to live in it.

Tags: ramble first-person

<< Adventures in bookmark parsing Back to index... test script tag >>