As I look out the window and see my wife working in her vegetable garden, I cannot help but reflect on COVID-19, social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing, and the “new normal” that we are moving toward by fits and starts. No, she is not wearing a mask in our backyard, but …
Yesterday, we wrapped up the highly anticipated staple of summer television in southern Maine – Tick Week. Tick Week may not yet have the mass appeal and marketing associated with Shark Week, but just give it time as climate change supports the spread of ticks and tick-borne disease.
Tick Week is a weeklong series of news reports dedicated to tick-borne diseases – identifying them, discussing their spread and impact, and most importantly, providing advice on how to prevent them. There is the old favorite Lyme Disease and the lethal, but rarer, Powassan Virus (relics from a simpler time when it was acceptable to name diseases and viruses after locations). And then there is the insidious Lone Star tick (surprisingly, not named after Texas, at least not directly) and the Alpha-gal syndrome (no, not a gender-based name) which leaves its victims allergic to red meat – a fate worse than death in my book.
Every trip that my wife makes to her garden (at least once per day) is comparable to the astronauts on the International Space Station preparing for a spacewalk. The process begins when she enters the northern New England home equivalent of an airlock. This is the small self-contained section of house between the main house and garage that houses the combination mud room, laundry room, downstairs half-bath, and serves as the de facto front door – the actual front door rendered decorative and opened less frequently than the Porta Sancta at St. Peter’s Basilica. As I said, upon entering the airlock, the process begins:
- Change into light-colored clothing
- Apply natural insect repellent (and sun screen, of course) to exposed skin, if any
- Put on white socks that pant legs can be tucked into
- Tuck in pant legs
- Pin back hair
- Put on light-colored hat
- Put on light-colored sneakers
- Block ear access with headphones or ear plugs
- Proceed to the garage
- Spray chemical insect repellent around shoes and pant legs
- Put on gloves (dependent on planned activity)
- Proceed to the garden
When gardening is done for the day, the process is repeated in reverse, followed by a thorough tick check – which is not as much fun as Brad Paisley made it sound. That’s the routine for any outdoor activity around the house that involves stepping off of our driveway or brick walkway. It adds 20 minutes or so on each end of every trip to the garden.
This type of routine is not what we were used to having spent most of our lives living in the city (there were other routines there), but you get used to it and it becomes normal. My wife is better at it and much more conscientious than I am. Now that I am retired, however, and spending more time outside I am getting better – can’t risk getting that red meat allergy.
When you think about it, life is full of lots of new normals. Some are just associated with getting old. Others, like paying for everything, including groceries, with a credit card just seem to happen over time. Still others, like reusable shopping bags for groceries and clear plastic bags and paperless tickets at arenas are thrust upon you. We adapt. That’s what humans do. I think it’s science.
At its core, Tick Week is about awareness that leads to behavior change. The theory of action is that education and increased awareness of the risks of tick-borne diseases will lead to at least some people interacting more safely with the environment. There are cautionary tales involving people who have been bitten and infected. There are elementary school programs designed to help kids shame their parents into doing the right thing. Again, I think it’s science.
So, as I gaze out the window at my wife working in her vegetable garden, no she is not wearing a mask in our backyard, but she damn well wears one every time that she goes to the grocery store, the post office, the doctor’s office, or the hair salon (after a 3-month wait). If any of her school-based activities were open, she would wear a mask there as well.
After what she goes through just to go to her garden, how hard is it to wear a mask.