What a year it’s been, that no one could have expected. Everything changes. But we still pick up our tree by bicycle.
As I have mentioned on occasion, I work as a professor at the University of California San Francisco. Nothing makes a public health researcher feel relevant like a global pandemic. My primary field of study is substance use rather than infectious disease, but unsurprisingly, what with all the stress everyone has been facing, it’s been a banner year for that too.
Some of the biggest changes for me professionally were the transition to teaching entirely online (which mostly sucks) and the elimination of all work-related travel (a mixed blessing). In addition, the explosion in COVID-related research meant that I have gotten more invitations to peer review this year than ever before; I think I served on half a dozen study sections for grant proposals in 2020, and I stopped counting how many papers I was reviewing months ago. Some of that time was borrowed from my now-nonexistent commute. We have ridden our bikes very little since March—Matt more than me, as he’s our designated shopper.
Mostly we stay very local: we have left the City and County of San Francisco (consolidated) exactly once between March and December, for a hike in Muir Woods last week. In the last few years our kids grew old enough to travel independently with us, and I definitely miss the chance to spend that kind of uninterrupted time with them. While we’re incredibly fortunate to have the kinds of jobs that can be done mostly at home, working from home definitely blurs the boundaries between work and not-work.
Before March, though, my daughter and I did take one trip; we went to Yosemite on her February break from school. For years I’d read about traveling there by transit, which is mildly complicated yet more relaxing than I could have imagined. The trip from SF took us from streetcar (Muni), to light rail (BART), to heavy rail (Amtrak), to bus (YARTS)—reverse order on the way back. The transfers are pretty closely timed so it ends up taking about as much time as driving would, except that I didn’t have to worry about chains and could stare out the windows at the scenery guilt-free. We rode the shuttles around the park itself to various trailheads—no cars allowed in the Valley, and buses get red carpet lanes outside it—and to brunch one morning at the Ahwahnee Lodge. It was a fantastic trip that I’d love to take again. I was uncertain that we’d enjoy going to the mountains in February (it was cold); in hindsight, I’m very glad we did. And I learned that Martinez (Amtrak stop along the way) is “Martinez! Martinez! Birthplace of the martini!” thanks to a particularly chatty conductor.
Like many kids in the US, ours, who are now 15 and 11, have transitioned to online school, which is about as much fun for them as students as it is for me as an instructor. Our son, as I predicted last year, is now taller than both parents. Our daughter is hot on his heels. Until February she was still mostly commuting on the back of the Tern GSD we bought last year. A bright spot is that both have increasingly chosen to ride on their own. Our son, who had no interest in bicycles from ~6th-9th grade, only riding transit (because it was compatible with playing video games) changed his mind this year and now wants to bike with his friends around the city (not feasible in the current COVID surge, but eventually it will be). Our daughter has been collecting at-home PE credits by biking to the store with us, and around Golden Gate Park.
Like most people in the US we’ve watched our lives become much more constrained. We can’t visit our parents, who are in assisted living. We haven’t traveled since March, because that would risk infecting ourselves and others. My sister lives 1.5 miles away, but we met for the holidays by Zoom. We have a collection of cloth masks by the front door that we’ve learned to put on every time we step outside. Last year at this time I hoped that 2020 would be a kinder year, and it definitely wasn’t one. The time dilation in particular is incredibly disconcerting. It feels like it was March just the other day and it feels like the year has lasted an eternity. After this grueling year, though, I do feel hope about 2021: my co-workers who work with patients are already being vaccinated for a disease that we were all barely aware existed at this time last year, that shattered every expectation about what normal means.
One thing that struck me in spring and summer, though, was the sudden quiet of a city on lockdown. With no one commuting, there was very little car traffic, and Muni shut down the streetcars. We woke up to birds singing instead of engines growling, and we weren’t the only people to appreciate it. San Francisco made JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park car-free every day instead of just on Sundays, opened Slow Streets through much of the city, and turned the Great Highway on the western edge of the city into the Great Walkway. A lot of things have been terrible this year, but some days when I was riding lazily back and forth through the all the space that had opened up, it felt like better things were possible too.