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Alone At The Desk - 23: What Kind of Year Has It Been?

A talk about what's changed since the pandemic began for me, our station, West Michigan... and what may come next.
A podcast by 13 On Your Side anchor Nick LaFave. He talks about life, the news industry, and life in the industry.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — On Tuesday, March 10th, 2020 Michigan confirmed its first case of COVID-19. That was 430 days ago. In that time, 19,633 Michiganders have died from COVID-19. 584,000 Americans. And 3.34 million worldwide. Those numbers are likely dramatic undercounts.

So many families have been destroyed. So many businesses have been destroyed. Yes, it looks like we're closer to the end of this pandemic than we are to the beginning. But, the effects of it will be with us for years, maybe decades.

There's no way to encapsulate everything that's happened in this humble little podcast. So I wont try. But, I'm going to talk a little about my observations. What's changed with me. What's changed in West Michigan. and where we may be going from here.  

This is Alone At The Desk. A podcast by an average, middle aged guy who just happens to be a TV news anchor. We talk about the exciting, the boring and the mundane parts of life, the industry, life in the industry... and some interesting and important stories along the way. Brought to you by 13 On Your Side news in Grand Rapids Michigan.

When Michigan's first COVID case was announced, I was supposed to be in Washington D-C for a work conference on social media. In fact, I'd just gotten back that morning after the conference - scheduled to begin the next day - was canceled. Originally, myself, my wife, our daughter and my mother were using the work trip as an excuse to tourist around the Capital. I took some vacation time before the actual event. They would do their thing for my two and a half days at the seminar. Then we'd spend another day in D-C before flying home. 

We were scheduled to fly out on Saturday the 7th. Three days before Michigan's first case was announced. The night prior - Friday the 6th - my wife started panicking. Cases were spiking up all over the nation. She was pregnant. And we still didn't know what we didn't know about COVID-19. My mom had some hesitations as well. She was 69 at the time, and had already flown down from Marquette and was with us in Grand Rapids, ready to fly out the next day. I was kind of committed, because I still had to be there for a work event. My wife and daughter stayed behind. But my mother decided to still go. She said she didn't want to let fear keep her from a trip she'd always wanted to take.

We were sitting at our gate at Gerald R. Ford International when I saw for the first time someone wearing a mask. It was so peculiar to me. I honestly thought they were overreacting. I was one of those people who thought this would all be over in a month or two. Obviously I was wrong.

For two days in D-C, my mother and I had a great time. We walked the mall. We went to the Holocaust Museum. We really enjoyed our time together. Then, Monday afternoon, we were sitting down to lunch at the Space Museum when I got a work email saying that my conference was canceled because of COVID.

Credit: Nick LaFave
2020 - March trip to Washington DC just before the pandemic. This image is of Nick lighting a candle at the Holocaust Museum.
Credit: Nick LaFave
2020 - March trip to Washington DC just before the pandemic. This is an image of Nick with the U.S. Capitol Building in the background.
Credit: Nick LaFave
2020 - March trip to Washington DC just before the pandemic. This is an image of Nick and his mother, Paulette, at the Lincoln Memorial.

Now I was in a bit of a pickle. Technically, I only took Monday and Tuesday for vacation. Wednesday Thursday and Friday, I was going to be on the clock because - work conference. Yes... we were entering into a worldwide pandemic and i was concerned about my PTO. Like I said... I didn't yet have a full appreciation for the seriousness of it all.

Shortening this story - we got new flights to go home the next day - Tuesday - the day Michigan's first case was announced.

In the ensuing 430 days, we've all experienced lockdowns, testing shortages, empty toilet paper aisles, mask debates, learned what zoom is, seen science and scientists move at a speed we couldn't have imagined. We realized the importance of an missed good, long hugs.  We watched our favorite teams play in empty stadiums. We've experienced far too much suffering and loss. 

Here at 13 On Your Side, we transitioned like everyone else. Not long after I got back from D-C, I was sent home. Fortunately, work helped me set up a basic studio in my basement. By in large it worked OK. Had a fire alarm incident one day on air when my wife was cooking. My cat, Jack, would sit on my feet to keep them warm while i was anchoring. I also moved from the 5, 6 and 11 newscasts to just the 5 and 6. They said it didn't make any sense for me to hang around to anchor half an 11pm newscast, that basically consisted of a 10 minute news hole. So my day started beginning at 9:30 a.m. instead of 2:30 p.m. I found i really liked being around my family while I worked - as much of American has... or hasn't. I know there are struggles there for many. But it's worked for me. It still works. I'm mostly working in the building now. For a while I was in the newsroom. But after we had a few positive cases at work, I asked for an empty office. That's where I've been since the fall.  But, we still do our morning meetings over zoom. Most days I can do that with one of my two kids on my lap.

Oh yeah.. .that's another change. My wife and I had a pandemic baby. Our son was born in October. So, there's been the struggle of a new child in a quarantine world. Only two members of my family have even met him yet. My mom, who was here visiting for the birth. and my brother, who happened to be passing through town two weeks ago. My father - who passed away from cancer in December - never met him. 

So, like so many others, I've gained a child and lost a loved one in the last year-plus. Life moves on, virus or not. The virus has just made it more difficult. You can't bring your new baby to see friends and family. You can't properly grieve when someone passes. Because - in both these instances - joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning - what's the first thing you do? You reach out for other people. Holding one another and crying are common, therapeutic practices when experiencing both pain and pleasure. and we've been denied that. We were reduced to hugging grandparents through plastic sheets. That - i think - aside from the obvious loss of life and business - has been the hardest part. We could literally lean on the one thing we always lean on. Each other. 

But, I do think we're near the end of the tunnel. At least in the U-S. Other parts of the world - like India - are still in the thick of this. And there are a million reasons why we don't' need to get into now. We absolutely need to help other parts of the world, because if we don't it's gonna come back to bite us in terms of mutated viruses that will get around the vaccines that are the primary reason we're coming out of this. But, for now... here at home... mask guidance's are being lifted. Sporting events are starting to go back to full capacity. Some states have been there for a while. I don't know the science of all of this and I'm not making pronouncements because I'm still worried. But I'm optimistic too.

So, let me address this podcast which hasn't had a new episode since - also - last March. When I started working from home, I just didn't have the necessary equipment to pull it off. And frankly - I had a million other personal and work responsibilities that took precedence. Then, when I got back into the building, i was promoted. I was shifted to day-side permanently because they wanted to keep all the new daily content I was providing, and I was able to have much more influence on our overall daily product since I was now involved at the beginning of the day, rather than comin gin halfway through in the afternoon. Alone At The Desk became out of sight out of mind. 

But I missed it. I really thought it was just starting to get in a groove with a decent following. So - starting today, I'm bringing it back. And I'm going to go for three episodes every month rather than two. I'm also going to doing more in depth looks at topics that I don't think get enough attention. in the coming weeks, I'm going to do an episode on burn pits, how they've affected veterans who served in Iraq. I'm going to to be doing an episode on the first amendment, freedom of speech and how it applies or doesn't apply to former President Trump and Facebook and Twitter. I'll also be doing podcast versions - longer versions - of some of my one good thing stories. so, a recent OGT about the Holland middle school chess set that sold for $2,000. I'm going to appropriate longer clips and sound from that shoot, and make a podcast. I'm also still going to be sharing anecdotal stories about my life and my life in tv news. So, alone at the desk is back... and pardon the cliché - I hope it will be better than before.

It's been 430 days since the world really changed here in Michigan when that first case was announced. But as I type this script, an email alert just came to my inbox. Governor Whitmer is relaxing mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people in the state. And by July 1st, the broader rule will expire. I'm hopeful we're moving back to whatever normal we can expect. and I'm grateful for the science and scientists who provided the tools to get us there. I'm grateful to the nurses and doctors who cared for the sick. I'm grateful to everyone who made a mask or a bottle of hand sanitizer. I'm grateful to everyone who has or will get a vaccine shot in their arm. 

None of us are meant to get through this life alone. and - despite how hard it was to be together in the traditional sense - we certainly couldn't get through this pandemic alone. 

If you'd like to hear more episodes of Alone At The Desk, check us out on Spotify, iTunes or Soundcloud.

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