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Set a Timer

Set a Timer

By Robert J. Rietz

“Hey Google, set a timer for 15 minutes,” I said before settling into an easy chair for a short wait. After flipping through a dog-eared copy of Bill Bryson’s One Summer, I asked for my status. “Hey Google, how much time is left?”

“Nine minutes and 17 seconds left.”

Nine minutes remaining! That can’t be! I must have been reading for at least 10 minutes. Next, I grabbed Failure Is Not an Option by Gene Kranz, the flight director for NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. This time I learned my lesson and leisurely read a couple of anecdotes before asking again. “Hey Google, how much time is left?”

“Three minutes and 42 seconds left.”

What! A watched pot never boils, but this was ridiculous. I sat on the edge of the cushion and waited. And waited. At last, Google’s melodic chimes signaled that 15 minutes had elapsed, and I rushed into the bathroom. Two bright pink lines declared my condition…


My wife, Nancy, and I gerrymandered our condo at once. As the offending party, I drew the guest bedroom and bathroom, and the far end of the sofa, but only if wearing a mask. The kitchen and dining room table became a demilitarized zone of sorts. She prepared her meals, had them first, and rinsed her dishware. After she finished, I cooked and ate and washed my plates and silverware before loading and running the dishwasher. Nancy benefited from the big-screen TV’s position in the living room, while I read in the guest bedroom, which lacked a television.

During the next three days, I experienced rotating combinations of fatigue, muscle aches, coughs, and congestion. I slept 12 hours each day and took my twice-daily dose of Paxlovid. As the physician delicately told me during my telehealth appointment on Friday, the severity of these symptoms is the result of a negative risk factor—age. I’m 74. Young whippersnapper doctor!

How could this be? Nancy and I had received our full regimen of vaccinations, a total of six sticks each. But a review of our vax cards revealed our last jab was about a year ago. However, my immediate task was reviewing last week’s schedule. Where might I have caught this vicious virus, and who might I have passed it onto?

Last Sunday, Nancy and I attended a Greek festival near downtown Asheville. We clapped in time to traditional music and dancing with the rest of the throng, and devoured delicious gyros for lunch. The celebration was crowded, the line for lunch was an hour long, and we ate ­family-style at abutting picnic benches under a tent. The swarm inside the church to buy frozen spinach pies and baklava for future dinners was just as dense, and the wait was only a bit shorter than the line for gyros.

Crowds? Check. Enclosed spaces? Check. Singing and laughing? Check. Did we wear masks? Nope.

The next step was delicate. Who have I seen since Sunday? On Monday, I attended an adult continuing education class. I notified the director because most of that population share the same, ahem, unfortunate risk factor that I have. Friends and neighbors I saw in and around our building this week were also notified of possible exposure.

The last potential contagion point was the local food pantry for low-income individuals, where I volunteer every Thursday morning, the busiest day of the week. Last Thursday, our seven-person staff accepted and processed over 2,000 pounds of food. In close quarters. In very close quarters. My initial symptoms arose after I came home around 1:30.

Three days later, on a beautiful Sunday Asheville afternoon, Nancy and I sat in opposing chairs, with me wearing a mask. I asked the same question. “Hey Google, how much time is left?” Time crept by as slowly as it had the first time, and the electronic assistant responded with a similar timeframe as before. The silence remained unbroken until I asked again, “Hey Google, how much time is left?”

After another discouraging answer, and another few minutes’ wait, the mellifluous chimes sounded. Nancy hurried into the bathroom and pointed at her home test kit.

Another set of two bright pink lines identified one more infected person in our home.


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