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Going, going…

It’s 10:30pm, and in about seven hours I’ll embark on my revenge vacation. Thirty-seven days, seven cities, and hopefully enough memories to put a dent into the sum total of missed experiences over these past 15 months. The trip will start in Vancouver, followed by Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles (well, Huntington Beach, to be precise), Reno, Vegas, and New York. At the very end, I’ll take a ceremonial walk across the border from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. (When I was booking the trip in May, the border situation was very uncertain. It’s still a bit murky.)

Some of my best-laid plans have already gone sideways. Three AirBnB hosts in a row cancelled my reservations as soon as I booked them, followed by a mad scramble to re-book. Amtrak has confessed that they did not in fact know if the border would reopen when they sold me a suspiciously cheap ticket to a crossborder bus. (Guess who’s got two thumbs, paid $300 extra for a last-minute Vancouver/Seattle flight, and will never ride with Amtrak again? This guy!) Air Canada unilaterally changed my Toronto/Vancouver flight to an earlier time, which means I’ll have to head out before 6am instead of sleeping in a little. (I won’t lie, I’m tempted to just head to the airport right now and spend the night there to make sure I don’t accidentally sleep through.)

So, yeah, life. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ On top of that, for the first time in my life I bought international traveler insurance. Judging by their dual classification of “just abroad” and “the US of A,” they probably charged me extra due to all the fun gun shenanigans the US is so infamous for. Oh well. Given the sheer randomness of all the public shootings in that fallen state (still no January 6 commission, almost six months later), I guess I’ll just have to hit the ground every time I hear a bang. Maybe slather some ketchup on myself for good measure – you know, to boost those odds. (If I do, in fact, get shot while I’m in the States… Come on, this was funny, though.)

Ontario tentatively started to reopen 10 days or so ago. It felt like a bizarrely perverse experience, eating a fairly bland (and oversalted) burger with fries and beer while other people did the same all around me, unmasked though distanced. I’ve gone out a few more times (you know, for science) and the sensation is still there, though it’s getting better. Even for someone with my wanderlust, this is one helluva long trip – the longest I’ve ever traveled, actually. I figure this sort of shock therapy is just what I need: people, museums, busy sidewalks, new sights and old friends every day… Every trip and every experience changes us, if only just a little. I know I’ll be a very different person when I return (hopefully without any new scars!) – I’m curious to learn just what those changes will be.

I’m going to hit up almost all of my old haunts, though I never lived in Portland or Los Angeles – and I’m skipping Dallas and Tampa because, you know, the plague. Southern states are the least likely to be vaccinated at this point in time. Nevada, being a very purple sort of state, is as low as Texas, with only 40% being fully vaccinated… Guess I’ll just have to dodge everyone who coughs, eh?

In a way, this will be a trip back in time, visiting all the old places I’ve lived in, all the friends and classmates I haven’t seen in years – and seeing my US family for the first time in over two years. (Or even as long as four years for some.) Just to preserve these memories, I’m taking my DSLR with its obnoxiously large zoom lens – next time I visit the US, the trip will be much less ambitious, so gotta make those memories count.

And meanwhile, I’m stuffing my shiny new 40-liter Osprey backpack with everything I can think of. (Can’t forget my laptop! Heh.) The backpack cost me a pretty penny, but I can see what all the noise is about: I keep finding more and more features and hidden compartments. That right there is as close as one can get to a Bag of Holding in real life.

And so… A few hours of sleep. A quick shower and breakfast. (I’ve tactically set aside a Tim Hortons cinnamon bun to reward myself for getting up before sunrise.) A trip to the airport before the city begins to wake up. A westward and cross-continental flight in defiance of all those pesky time zones. (In a way, it’ll take only an hour and 46 minutes. Heh.) The one revenge vacation to end them all…

Wish me luck, eh?

Pedestrian once more

It’s been 39 days since I left my job, and I’ve finally sold my car. It was an inevitability: at some point, you either get rid of your car or it gets destroyed in a wreck. Or it outlives you, I suppose, but that’s a bit too grim.

After leaving my job, there was no longer any reason to drive. Living in southern Toronto, in the densely populated Annex neighbourhood, everything is within walking distance. I had to actually drive to the grocery store half a mile away just to make sure the battery didn’t die from atrophy. One of peculiar things about Canada is that they’re not very flexible on car insurance: you must purchase the full liability coverage, and as an immigrant, there’s the added surcharge. In the end, my car insurance ended up being $230 CAD a month, and that’s after all the discounts I’ve managed to stack up. Add the monthly parking fee on top of that, and it’s close to $400 a month, which is a lot to pay for a glorified paperweight.

Thinking strategically, there’s only one time I’ll absolutely need a car in the next year or so, and that’ll be for my upcoming move to Quebec. (I have my heart set on Quebec City…) Even then, I’d need to get a Uhaul to move all my stuff, so once again, a car would be a liability. (Not to mention paying extra for the registration in Quebec, etc.)

I’ve had that little Kia Rio since 2013, but it was time to say goodbye. After 61,777 miles, after more roadtrips than I care to recall, we parted ways. Of course, things didn’t quite go smoothly: an overly enthusiastic car wash guy slathered absolutely everything in shampoo, flooded the car’s electronics, disabled the fuel gauge, a couple of small buttons, and half the wiper functions – and ultimately cost me about $450 in repairs and discounts. Ho hum. In the end, the car I’d bought for $24,000 USD in Vegas ended up getting sold for $3,750 CAD in Toronto: that’s an 87.4% drop in value. The purchase price is a bit high because I was an idiot and fell for every single sales trick. Yes, they actually managed to sell me anti-rain windshield treatment in the middle of the desert. (Hey, I never claimed to be wise.) Still, that investment gave me some much-needed peace of mind, since my previous three cars had been lemons that were liable to break down at least every other month. When you’re a warehouse grunt, and when missing a workday not only costs a day’s wages but potentially jeopardizes your job security… In that context, a monthly payment of ~$360 is a whole lot cheaper than spending the same amount of money on repairs. Ahh, youth.

It’s strange, adjusting to the new carless mindset. Earlier today, as I finalized the transaction with an enthusiastic guy (who also happened to be a double immigrant like myself), there was a choice of taking a 40-minute Lyft or a 1-hour-40-minute bus trip home. One of those options was literally 10 times more expensive than the other. I think you know which one I picked. Some panicky part of my brain keeps pointing out all the car-accessible places I can’t easily go to (like the town where they shot Schitt’s Creek) but even then, arranging a ride would be a whole lot easier and cheaper than maintaining a car I don’t really use. My life is simpler now, which is exactly what I’d been working toward. In many ways, I’m drifting back to the pre-Amazon version of myself, right out of college. Replacing cider with coke, reverting from being a driver to being a pedestrian.

There is a symmetry to this: the only reason I ever got a car in the first place (and learned to drive over the course of one weekend) was because of my Amazon job. That warehouse was the only place hiring in Reno during the mean, lean winter of 2009, and it was 35 miles away. There was no transit, and eventually I ran out of carpool buddies. I needed that job, so a $1,200 lemon car was the only way to go. Now that my 11.5-year journey with the company is over, so is my need for a car. It all folds in on itself, eh?

The only objective downside is that I won’t be able to get away at top speed if there’s ever a legitimate but improbably rare emergency, such as a global pandemic or a radioactive leak at the local nuclear power plant – but come on, those things only happen once a century or so. (If the Pickering Nuclear Plant goes kaboom right after I post this… Come on, it was funny, though.) Without my car, xgf and I never would’ve been able to run off on our 72-day-long AirBnB odyssey. Still, even the prospect of a mildly apocalyptic romantic adventure isn’t enough to maintain that dead weight.

This will take some getting used to… Even as my mobility is reduced, my life is so much simpler now. What I gave up in my freedom of movement, I’ve offset by making my bank account happier and my life a bit less stressful. No longer shall I have to be that jerk neighbour who drives to the grocery store a few blocks away – and if that’s not a clear-cut benefit, I don’t know what is. I hope my car leads a long and happy life before heading off to the big Kia parking lot in the sky, eh.

Plague diaries, Day 406

Friday evening.

I’m back, and everything went even better than expected. I don’t know if I’m just incredibly lucky, or if my obsessive preparation always ensures success, or if my innate pessimism means that any unexpected outcome is positive by default. Perhaps all three. Today’s Ohio trip took 13 hours and 20 minutes (4am-5:20pm) and 600 miles. Altogether, including the time it’d taken me to research and book my appointments, drive, and get my shots, the entire vaccination affair took me about 30 hours, 1,300 miles, and over $500 USD. I know it’s not very mature of me, but after all I went through, I utterly despise anyone who decides not to get a perfectly fine covid vaccine that’s available within 25 miles. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you decline the first vaccine you’re offered, you go to the very back of the line. We’ll vaccinate every teenager, child, and pet before getting back to you.

…but I digress. I tried a little too hard with my sleep cycle: after going to bed at 8pm last night, I woke up at 12:30am, and couldn’t fall asleep again. Upside: I didn’t sleep through my alarms. Downside: I was a bit sleep-deprived while driving. Nothing a RedBull couldn’t fix, though.

This time, I drove through the Michigan border, not the New York one. It was even emptier than before: when I finally got there after hours of driving, I was the only driver there. When I stopped at the covid test clinic in the town of Maumee (a suburb of Toledo, from what I gather), I still had time to kill. I marched down to the Maumee river, confirmed it was there, then walked back, and sampled that town’s finest cuisine. I’ll never understand why Burger King’s food is so insanely salty.

Test in hand, I made it to the Toledo health department, which was quite anticlimactic. There was no line this time: perhaps all those articles about the slowdown in vaccine sign-ups are true. I was too giddy to get my shot despite being almost two hours early, so I didn’t pay much attention, but there were about seven people spending their mandatory 15 minutes in the observation area. At a glance, they were between 35-70 years old. This time, there was no address verification – they didn’t even ask me for my ID, only for my date of birth, which they used to find my appointment in their database. (Minutes earlier, the security guard asked if I had an appointment or was a walk-in: are their vaccines really that abundant?..) A really cool medic in the adjoining room asked a few perfunctory questions, asked for my consent (I made sure to reply with an enthusiastic “Yes! Of course! Two thumbs up!” just in case), and gave me the second shot of the Pfizer-y goodness.

The really strange thing happened on the drive back… I’d already made peace with the idea of a second house arrest, another 14-16 days spent indoors without even going outside for a nighttime walk. Imagine my surprise when I rolled up to the border guard’s booth, gave him all my paperwork, and just got waved through. I even asked, “So there’s no test? No quarantine?” and he replied with “Nah, you’re good.” It wasn’t just his whim: there were no PPE-covered medics this time around. Did they leave to start their weekend early? Was their presence needed at the airport after Canada kicked off a month-long ban on flights from India and Pakistan last night? (A lot of Canadians are from India. This will have a major impact…) I don’t know, and I don’t understand, but an official representative of Canada’s government told me all was well, so here we are – no house arrest, just two weeks of recuperation (walks and all) while my body fully builds up its mRNA-based covid defense. This is the best of all possible outcomes, eh.

So here we are… After getting home, gobbling up a celebratory dinner of salmon a la instapot, and drinking some champagne with cheese and crackers, I’m about to fall asleep and end this strange long day. The side effects all my friends mentioned have yet to materialize after almost eight hours – but hey, even if I do feel like death tomorrow, that’s just the price of protection.

I still can’t believe this is over. On the drive back, on all those half-empty highways, I couldn’t stop grinning, laughing, and smiling. I spent a significant portion of that drive with my windows down and yelling at the top of my lungs, “I’m immune! I’M IMMUNE! I’M IMMUUUUUUUUUUUNE!” (Hey, I never said I was classy.) I’m a decent writer and I speak multiple languages, but I cannot begin to describe what a relief this is to finally end this strange chapter of my life…

Even as my own personal pandemic is over, the world is still aflame. Reports claim that several hospitals in India ran out of oxygen last night. Canada is still not sure when it’ll reopen, with more local-level measures being announced almost every hour. Brazil remains a horror show.

For posterity’s sake, here are the latest covid deaths as of right now: as always, these are merely the official figures which don’t capture undiagnosed deaths or excess mortality. The final figures, whenever they may come, will certainly be higher.

US: 570K deaths
Canada: 23.9K deaths
UK: 127K deaths
India: 187K deaths
Brazil: 384K deaths
Worldwide: 3.07 million deaths

So this is how it ends… Later than I thought it would, earlier than it would have if I didn’t keep hunting for every available opportunity. Two weeks from now will be my final workday in the corporate rat race. I’m not sure what will come afterwards. I’ve already come up with a new five-year plan: let’s see how fast I can get it accomplished. And in the meantime… I was a pretty good corporate drone, and an excellent analyst. Maybe now I can concentrate on my artsy side: finally learn that guitar I bought three years ago, or learn to draw something other than stick figures. In the next year or so, I’ll trade in my Kia Rio for a van, put a mattress inside, and go on a loooong drive across Canada, to look at all the attractions and cool picturesque places. I’ve got my whole life ahead of me…

Thank you all for reading. I hope it wasn’t too boring, eh. Your comments are always welcome – and who knows, maybe someday, somewhere, somehow our paths will cross, and we’ll meet up, and chat, and talk, and laugh, and laugh.

So long, and thanks for all the clicks.

Plague diaries, Day 405

Thursday afternoon.

Tomorrow is the end. Here, now, today, is my last day without the full two-shot vaccine protection. Sure, it’ll take my body a couple of weeks to fully ramp up its anti-covid defenses, but that’ll be on autopilot: there’ll be nothing else I’ll need to do. With tomorrow’s update, this blog series will finally end.

I’m writing down the bulk of my thoughts today instead of tomorrow: I don’t know whether I’ll get side effects from my second shot of Pfizer, or if I’ll be in any shape to write. Proper planning and practice prevents poor performance, eh?

I’m not sure how long I thought the pandemic would last back when I started this project in March 2020: memory is unreliable like that. I might have thought this virus could be constrained and isolated. I definitely don’t recall thinking this would go over a year – multiple years in non-G8 countries. Truth be told, I never thought this random project, inspired by a random post I saw on Reddit (“keep a journal, it’s good for you!”) would last over a year. Had I known that, I might not have started, but I’m glad I did.

My personal pandemic is about to end even as most of Canada remains unvaccinated, as Brazil remains every epidemiologist’s nightmare, as India is posting record-high case numbers and running out of oxygen, with people dying without that most basic supply – something that would’ve been unimaginable before covid. Over the past 13 months, I wrote primarily about the things that interested me: video games, books, investing, covid’s effect on public health, politics, finance, etc. There were quite a few aspects I didn’t cover: the plight of frontline workers who eventually lost their “hero pay” and in some cases had their stores shut down, or the spike in anti-Asian violence (almost always anti-Asian-women violence…) in the US and in Canada, or the way children and young adults all over the world regressed and got traumatized away from their teachers and peers, forced to stare at a laptop for months on end. All this – and more – happened, but there are some topics that I have no idea how to approach beyond just shaking my head and muttering “WTF? WTAF?..”

This pandemic highlighted – and will continue to highlight – the growing gap between the rich and the poor, both worldwide and within allegedly prosperous countries. It showed how inefficient world leaders can be, especially when they’re authoritarian populists. Bolsonaro’s Brazil became one of the world’s biggest covid hotspots. Trump and his wife Melania got vaccinated in secret in January – for once, he didn’t want cameras to see him, and his follow-up message to his supporters to get vaccinated was too little, too late. Putin finally got vaccinated on live TV, but his own administration never revealed what exactly he got injected with. (That may or may not have been Sputnik V.) Doug Ford got vaccinated with AstraZeneca a few days ago, just a week after publicly criticizing it, and then pretended to die right afterwards to get some cheap laughs from his entourage. None of those things inspire confidence; none of those alleged leaders showed any leadership. (Incidentally, this recent article provides the inside scoop on Ford’s flip-flopping, which it charitably calls “climbdowns.” The short version is that the lockdown measures were decided by a committee; no doctors had been consulted.)

The pandemic also showed that not all high-ranking doctors can be trusted. The WHO spent those first few precious months arguing that covid wasn’t airborne (even as the anti-aerosol evidence kept piling up) or that it wasn’t a pandemic at all. Dr. Fauci, despite all his stellar performance afterwards, originally told Americans that masks don’t work and shouldn’t be used. Later, he revealed that he was trying to trick people so that more masks would be available for healthcare workers. That might have been an okay tactic, but it was a terrible strategy which destroyed trust. Dr. Birx kept sucking up to Trump, at one point claiming that his extensive business background and his alleged ability to read balance sheets and such would make him great at reading academic papers on covid. (That was not the case.) Birx’s post-election attempt at a PR rehabilitation tour haven’t been very convincing. Here in Canada, Dr. Tam (Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer – our version of Fauci) told everyone that only sick people should wear masks. That was in March 2020, that most critical month… She doubled down on that statement in the following weeks, before finally recommending masks seven weeks later. She never did apologize. She still has her job.

All of the above provides plenty of fuel for anti-vaxxers and overall crackpots, and only strengthens my own inherent distrust of authority figures. (Born and raised in the Soviet Union/Russia, remember?) Some leaders, some countries, some communities performed admirably against all odds (way to go, Navajo Nation!), but most did not. An idiot can skate by fairly long in absence of any real emergencies, but when they actually happen… Well, we’ve al seen the results. The Peter Principle is all around us at all times, and I’m not sure it’s possible to adequately tell if someone will perform well or absolutely crumble and self-sabotage when a true crisis comes along. All I know is that next time there are reports of a weird highly contagious virus, I’ll try to run off to New Zealand, or Taiwan, or Vietnam, or at the very least to Canada’s Atlantic provinces that formed their own bubble: it didn’t last forever, but it was quite impressive nonetheless. Not everyone has those options or mobility, I know: most people would have to make do with the idiot leaders and/or doctors that happen to be in charge at the time.

On the personal front… I am not okay. I’ve learned some cool and useful things about myself, such as the fact that cider doesn’t actually do anything for my stress levels, or that I can operate just fine without ginkgo biloba (though it does make feel great), or that I cannot survive without caffeine – those withdrawal headaches suck. I perfected my investing skills and learned a little French and a fair bit of Spanish. But on the other hand, I’ve gone pretty damn feral. It’s been many months since I touched another human being. (My party-loving Vietnamese landlords weren’t into hugging.) The only real-world conversations I’ve had over the past three months were with the vaccine trial doc. I can’t adequately describe my yearning to reconnect with the rest of the world, to date, to love, to party, to converse. I sense that I’ve grown much more irritable and easier to anger. I’ve definitely developed a video game addiction. With not much else to do but stare at various screens, my eyes dry up and hurt. (It doesn’t help that I have a stress-related tick where I forget to blink.) I maintain my pre-pandemic weight and try to do some half-assed exercises but with gyms being unsafe, I am – at best – in the same shape as before covid, and likely a bit worse. At least the vitamin D supplements (aka Canada’s national snack) keep me from getting depressed, to the extent that it’s possible.

If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you might think that I severely overreacted to this whole pandemic business and have only myself to blame for everything I just described. Who knows, you might be right. At first, it was a game of “dodge the virus” because things would’ve gone pretty damn bad for my then-gf if I caught it and infected her. And after those first 72 days, after we split up and went our separate ways, there were multiple reports of long covid, of survivors with ruined lungs or persistent brain fog. As someone who aims to die of old age with most of my brain intact, please and thank you, that alone was pretty terrifying. I’m up for many things, but I’m rather risk-averse when it comes to permanent damage, or high risk thereof. (If you ever see me riding a horse, a motorcycle, or both, please call for help.) I know quite well that I’m both lucky and privileged to have an okay job that allows me to work from home: had this pandemic happened just seven years ago, I would’ve been as screwed as the rest of all y’all. My experience has been very different from that of most of my fellow pandemic travelers, and it is my hope that maybe, somehow, someone will find this long (and occasionally dry) recollection of events useful.

In more down-to-earth news, today was spent preparing for the big trip tomorrow, as well as the big quarantine that will follow. A bit of cider, just one can every other day. Two bottles of champagne, one to celebrate my full vaccination tomorrow night, one to celebrate my last day at work two weeks later. A bit of salmon and chicken to last me a week: the tiny fridge doesn’t have a freezer, so the second half of my house arrest will consist of Ramen noodles, canned tuna, sandwiches, white chocolate, and good vibes. An urban hike to the nearest Royal Bank of Canada bank (which turned out to be closed due to an unspecified emergency – a covid outbreak?..), followed by a hike to a different branch, where I learned it takes three whole weeks to deposit a check from myself to myself, from the US to Canada. I hope the dude they send on horseback to Seattle will avoid highwaymen and make it there and back in time.

As a night owl, I’m rather proud of myself for successfully waking up (and staying awake!) at 5am today. I’ll aim for 3:50am tomorrow. I am prepared: the US passport, the Canadian papers, the index cards with the locations of the covid-testing clinic (for the low, low price of $210 USD) and the vaccination center and my fake Toledo address. The water bottles, and a few cans of coke, and some cashews. A backpack for both my home and work laptops in case I can’t reenter Canada. Multiple backup alarms. Podcasts downloaded on a USB stick for the long 10+ hour drive. The Ohio addresses are already punched into my GPS. This giant blog post written and about to be released into the worldwide web wilderness… This is as ready as I’ll ever get.

I can’t believe that after all this time, my personal pandemic is almost over. So close. So very, very close.

Cheers, y’all. Wish me luck.

Plague diaries, Day 404

Wednesday evening.

Heh… 404, not found. That’s how I’ll think of this entire wasted part of my life, and I doubt it’ll be just me. Can we all just pretend this last year+ never happened? It’ll be like the “gas leak year” on NBC’s Community, which they used to pretend the two middle seasons never happened.

Ahh, the glamorous life of an expat… The deadline to file Canadian taxes is in nine days, and thus far my company-provided accountants have been replying to my questions with the verbal equivalent of a shruggie emoji. Just in case the bill is on the high side, I tried transferring some money from my online stock account to Canada, only to be told that’s not an option. Moving the money to my US account and then wiring it off to Canada also wouldn’t work, because their wire confirmation system refuses to text Canadian cellphones. (I grudgingly admire their commitment to security.) Driving to the nearest Wells Fargo to arrange that in person (and/or pick up some cash to take to Canada) would also be problematic, seeing as they sold their entire Midwest division to Flagstar in 2018, and the nearest bank is in Philadelphia, an eight-hour drive away.

So, guess who has two thumbs and will slowly siphon his own US checking account through Canadian ATMs? This guy! I’ll probably look like the world’s stupidest criminal if that sets off any red flags. At some point this year, during my big US tour, I’ll have to bring a big old pile of papers to Wells Fargo to get them to wire some cash from myself to myself as if I were some eccentric 19th-century merchant. So much for progress, eh?

On that note, my broker has finally realized that I no longer live in the US (it only took them two years + a Canadian phone number + a Canadian IP address + me explicitly telling them “I no longer live in the US”) and shut down my account, which I’ve had with them since 2007. The good news is that transferring the whole account (main trading as well as the Roth IRA) to a better broker should take just one week. The bad news is that even with the move from the US to Canada (aka the easiest international relocation out there), bureaucrats still can’t quite handle even the most basic stuff. At least I live near the border, and can hypothetically drive out to settle things in person. If my 2018 attempt to move to Australia had been successful, that would’ve been a loooong swim home.

Incidentally, and because this cannot be said enough times: Ally is the worst possible broker you can imagine, and it’ll probably be only a matter of time before they go broke or suffer a catastrophic hack. Rot in hell, Ally. (Seriously, folks, stay away from them: just the fact that they occasionally disable the login page for shits and giggles… Real companies don’t do that.)

One of my Vaccine Hunters buddies, a fellow US infiltrator, told me he got his second doze of Pfizer in Ohio yesterday. (He has family there, so he stayed there the whole three weeks between the shots.) He also said the vaccination center had to shut down early because they feared riots once the verdict in the George Floyd case got announced. (The one where the white cop killed a Black man’s by kneeling on his neck for almost 10 minutes, in the middle of the day and surrounded by many witnesses.) Surprisingly, and hopefully setting a precedent, Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all charges. I can’t recall another time that happened. Of course, even as the case was being deliberated, cops shot and killed more unarmed Black people all over the US… That country has issues. Many, many issues.

Somewhat related, it’s been over 100 days since the attempted coup on January 6th, and only 410 domestic terrorists have been arrested. Based on the size of that mob and all the footage, there were easily thousands of them. That means only a fraction suffered any consequences: there are probably some more in the pipeline, waiting to be identified and/or processed, but that just means most of them will get away with that. And as we already covered, lack of consequences is just an invitation to keep trying… I’m sure they’ll do better on their second try – their third try at the latest. I only hope I’m not in the vicinity when that happens. (Washington DC has some amazing museums. I don’t know when I’ll visit it again, but it’ll happen at some point in the future.)

In more uplifting developments, Simon Rich is a brilliant author: I’ve started reading his Hits and Misses short story collection, and it’s unbelievably well written and funny. I have to pace myself to make the book last longer: he’s got at least eight books out there, but I don’t want to devour them too quickly. Tonight’s high-brow entertainment: Under the Skin, a movie about a mysterious stranger who kidnaps Scottish hitchhikers. The book was excellent, and I hope the move is at least as good.

In covid news, there’s a fascinating new black market industry: fake covid shots. It’s happening all over the world: Poland, Mexico, South Africa, China… In Mexico, they were being distributed out of beach-style beer coolers for $1,000 a pop. In Poland, people were injected with an antiwrinkle compound. (That’s a net positive compared to getting saline solution, but probably not what those folks wanted.) It was only a matter of time before something like this popped up, but still… Taking advantage of the most desperate people in the hardest-hit countries. No bueno, eh. I hope nobody dies as those scammers inject people with whatever is at hand.

To wrap things up, here is an improbably artsy picture I took of my Studio of Solitude before heading out to the experimental vaccine clinic early yesterday morning. The lighting was just too good to miss. Behold, my pigsty in its epic glory!

Good night, y’all. Stay safe.

Plague diaries, Day 403

Tuesday night.

Today’s final visit to the vaccine trial clinic was the most social interaction I’ve had in almost a month: a five-minute chat with the doctor in charge of the small trial was the most I’ve spoken to another living being. (The Ohio vaccine line was mostly giddy, distanced, and shivering in the chilly weather.) The nurse’s touch as she withdrew five ampules of blood was the only human contact since, well, the last time they did that, about a month ago. I said this before, and I’ll say it again: I’m going to get alllll the massages and make alllll the friends when this is over. I wonder how many others are going mildly feral and will have a hard time adjusting to the world.

On the plus side, my participation in that study (which had a 33% chance of being a placebo) ended up making me $300 – that should cover the impulsive online shopping I’ve been doing on and off.

On the down side, I’ve been expelled from the Vaccine Hunters. Heh. Well, not so much expelled as told that a) taking a vaccine from the trial program ended up depriving another person of their chance, and b) they find it “ethically grey area” to give infiltration advice to Canadians who want to go to the States for their vaccine. That came straight from the group’s admins, and it’s pretty damn weird, because a) you’d already need to be healthy to sign up for the vaccine trial (high-risk people weren’t eligible; even smoking pot would disqualify you), b) it’s an experimental vaccine that’s not guaranteed to work (quite a few vaccine trials died a quiet death over the past year), and c) the vaccine trial’s organizers told me, explicitly, during our first meeting, that if I get a chance to take an approved vaccine, I should do so – they didn’t expect any trial participants. to go a full year without getting vaccinated.

As for their US infiltration criticism… I think I mentioned this before: the only class I ever failed was Advanced Bioethics. I fully acknowledge that my ethical system is different from that of most other people. (Nothing illegal, mind you, but the golden rule really doesn’t apply in my case. Heh.) Therefore, I fully acknowledge that maybe I’m the wrong one – but it seems to me that if a nuclear superpower bans the export of the life-saving vaccines you’d ordered well in advance, then you’re ethically, morally, and philosophically in the clear if you can get to them. There is a strange – perhaps uniquely Canadian – phenomenon where people (not anti-vaxxers, but regular people) who become eligible for their vaccinations refuse to sign up. “But others need it more than I do!” they say, and when enough people do that, you end up with empty appointment slots and general disarray. That’s an extreme version of politeness, the sort of outlier that hurts everyone on the large scale. I think this is the same thinking at play: sneaking past the border and getting a vaccine shot that had been allocated for Canada way back in 2020 isn’t something a nice and moral person would do, in their opinion, so they choose to silence the whole discussion instead.

The other possibility is that the Vaccine Hunters leadership is trying really hard to be apolitical. On their Discord channel, there’s plenty of people raging against Doug Ford, but the group as a whole doesn’t criticize anyone or take sides when it talks to the media. Perhaps this is their very strange and proactive attempt to preempt any criticism. (Nice journalists reach out for comment; not-so-nice journalists might join the public chatroom and take notes based on what they see.) Either way, my sole contribution to the group was advising dozens of Canadians on the fine points of getting across the border, getting your shot, and getting back. After they banned that particular topic of discussion, there wasn’t much else for me to do there.

I would be lying if I said that didn’t hurt, and I seldom lie. A clean break is for the best, though. I shouldn’t have gotten so emotionally involved. In a way, from a certain perspective, this is helpful. I’m no longer in the US and not affected by their politics, so quitting that political blog a few months ago helped sever that part of my life: a clean break. As my personal pandemic is about to end, I’ll really have to start detransitioning from the covid news diet, and being in that Vaccine Hunters chatroom would not have been productive… I still plan on volunteering at vaccine distribution centers, but life is far too short for hanging out with too-polite-to-live bioethicists. I wonder if this the ultimate fate of every progressive alliance: at some point, philosophical divisions break the group apart as the core philosophy (in this case, “all the shots in all the arms”) fractures. Oh well.

Meanwhile, I’ve devoured Simon Rich’s Sell Out, a four-part story that originally appeared in New Yorker. (It was much easier to find than I’d anticipated.) As a two-time immigrant, I found it absolutely hilarious. I only hope my neighbours didn’t get too alarmed by sharp and sudden bursts of laughing. Next up, literally any other story that Simon Rich has ever written. The man has talent, eh.

I’m trying and failing to adjust my sleep cycle for the very, very early awakening on Friday morning. My covid shot in Toledo is scheduled for 1pm (even though it’s really just FIFO), my rapid PCR covid test is at 11am, and it takes five hours to get from Toronto to Toledo. Given a 90-minute buffer for snacks, gas stations, possible traffic, etc, I should leave at 4:30am. That implies getting up no later than 4am. Considering I stayed up till 2am last night playing Stardew Valley (ye gods, it’s so addictive), I’m not off to a good start. Perhaps if I force myself to get up at 6am-ish tomorrow and Thursday… Worst-case scenario, I can just pull over and take a nap – and if I sleep through my alarm that morning, I can always reschedule, but I’d really rather not extend my personal pandemic by even one more day. First-world problems, I know.

In covid news, Ontario is quietly undergoing a very Canadian form of revolution: instead of following Ford’s patchwork of inefficient guidelines, Toronto and Peel (also Toronto, but a bit to the west) have announced their own localized measures. Any workplace that had five or more covid cases that “could have reasonably acquired their infection at work” over the course of two weeks will get shut down for 10 days. That. Is. Huge, y’all. This is the kind of policy we should’ve had in place a year ago. It’s far too late now, but this will do some good. The hard part will be proving whether the cases were work-related or not, but here is hoping they’ll figure it out and move quickly. This is really quite remarkable: the medical leadership of the biggest city in Canada has snubbed the premier of its own province. Ford has been getting brutal criticism locally, nationwide, and even in Washington Post. Some claim that his party is finally working on providing some paid sick days, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

In less local news, the pandemic is still accelerating around the world: that’s easy to forget if all you look at is the US, UK, and the parts of Canada that are not Ontario. According to the WHO, new cases have been increasing for eight weeks in a row, with 5.2 million new cases reported worldwide last week. The world’s official covid death count is just over three million right now: unofficially, it’s much higher. I can’t describe how bizarre and macabre it is to know that while the pandemic is almost over for everyone I know, it’s actually accelerating for billions of people elsewhere. If there were some way, somehow, to sneak people from Brazil or India into the US and give them their shots, I would’ve done so in a heartbeat…

Good night, y’all. Stay safe out there.

Plague diaries, Day 402

Monday night.

…I just can’t get enough of that “outside” place. Today, I went out three times, as if I were a kid all over again. First, a Tim Hortons brunch (hey, you don’t get to judge me), then an excursion to a nearby park (it was sweater weather; thick sweater), and finally a run to the nearby store to finally pick up the remaining art supplies I’ll need to tackle the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workbook. (It comes with a lot of requirements, eh.) Between that, the untouched set of oil paint I got for Christmas, and my friends’ assurances that yes, it is in fact possible to learn guitar basics on youtube, the second quarantine should be a bit more entertaining than the first. Hopefully, the weather will be better when I re-emerge from it: this is as close as I’ll ever get to hibernation.

But meanwhile… A selfish part of me spent quite a lot of time planning a very elaborate post-quarantine trip between Toronto, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Reno, Vegas, and New York, which would have to fit in 33 days. (For tax reasons, if I spend more than 35 days per year in the US, my expat tax immunity will disappear.) And then I saw some local headlines that vaccination site volunteers have been posting online to notify folks when there are available doses. New plan: once I get both of my shots and emerge from the quarantine, I’m going to spend as much time as possible helping my fellow Canadians get vaccinated, eh. I don’t believe in karma, but it’ll be something interesting to do, a chance to fight the good fight at long last, and a way to maybe make some new friends. (My penpal friend from Los Angeles can’t make it here in May after all. Bah, humbug.) But after that, though – that 33-day trip is going to be well deserved and utterly amazing.

I mentioned the Dying Light game a couple of nights ago. For the record, it’s completely and utterly terrifying. It’s made by the same people that created Dead Island way back in 2011, and it looks like they doubled down on the strongest parts of the game: urban landscape, infected (but not quite zombie) people running at you with improvised weapons, terrifying noises in the background, occasional human-like whimpers… I had to put the game aside for a bit and cleanse my palate with the most wholesome game I know – Stardew Valley. Trying something different this time: the new character is named Jenny, and she’s already created a parsnip monopoly while slaying monsters in underground abandoned mines. Sort of like Buffy but in the rural environment. That game is something else.

Next reading project: “Sell Out,” a series of short stories by Simon Rich. They were originally published in New Yorker and can’t be found on Kindle: I like a challenge!

In covid news, yesterday they were only four covid deaths in Britain. That’s still four too many, but that was their lowest daily death toll since September – a significant victory and hopefully the beginning of the end. It’s wild how some countries are seeing their healthcare infrastructure crumble while others are very nearly recovered. The next 12 months will be quite strange.

Good night, y’all.

Plague diaries, Day 401

Sunday night.

My first full post-quarantine day was delightful. Outside, you couldn’t really tell there were more restrictions than when I entered my 16-day house arrest. Including today, I have only five days before the second trip, before the second period of isolation in my little studio…

A Tim Hortons takeout meal is what passes for high cuisine when you account for safety in this here pandemic. (I would’ve gotten it through the drivethrough, but there aren’t any of those anywhere near.) An overworked cashier forgot to include one of my doughnuts: I didn’t protest. Inside, an old woman was defiantly wearing her mask under her nose. An old man with a walker, hard of hearing, wasn’t wearing a mask at all. The masked employees said nothing to either of them. Were they too afraid to anger their customers? Did they give a damn? Did they used to give a damn but stopped because they were overwhelmed? So many mysteries. For what it’s worth, the meal and the black coffee tasted absolutely delicious once I got them back to my place. It’ll become my staple – unhealthy but yummy – until my second trip, because the 16 days to follow will be more of the same old instapot cooking. (Why yes, my life really is very exciting right now. Heh.)

I finally got a chance to stretch my legs and spent a couple of hours wandering through the University of Toronto campus. It’s beautiful… The old cannons that were sunk when the French lost their claim to what is now Quebec. The beautiful Soldiers’ Tower. The wilted memorial garden. Once the world reopens, I’d love to see the inside of all those little museums and galleries too. For now, though, I made do with cherry blossoms: there weren’t many cherry trees on campus, but even so, it was beautiful.

I’m finally done reading Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, David Remnick’s Pulitzer-winning opus about the last few years of the Soviet Union. At over 600 pages, the pacing was uneven: some parts were dry and slow as molasses, while others were literally LOL-funny and fast-paced. (I’m sure that wasn’t the book’s intent but I got some interesting – and perfectly legal! – entrepreneurial ideas from it…) Overall, it was an excellent and educational addition to my collection. Growing up in post-perestroika Russia, history was always in a state of flux. Even in my class of 30 gifted kids, we weren’t allowed to learn what happened in the 20th century – probably because there was no official compromise on what to teach the next generation. As a result, we ended up covering Russian history from the 10th through the 19th century, and never went beyond. I think we covered the same 900 years three times in a row over the course of several years. It was pretty funny, really… Needless to say, they didn’t teach us anything about western history, either. (There was some world art appreciation which covered ancient civilizations; that was neat.) In our final school year, one of the teachers took pity on us and tried giving us a 40-minute-long crash course on the 20th century, but how much can you really fit into a single short lesson?

Reading Remnick’s book, old childhood memories started bubbling back up: all the different newspapers we used to read, the sudden overnight changes in currency as our ruble lost more and more value, all the political chaos… Some parts were genuinely new to me: all the post-Stalin massacres, or the much lighter pieces, such as Yeltsin having lost his left thumb and index finger when he tried to break apart a stolen grenade using a hammer when he was 11 years old. (That was a very Russian sentence, I know.) My overall opinion remains unchanged: I left Russia when I was almost 17, back in 2003, I’ve never gone back, and I never will – or at least not as long as it remains a de facto dictatorship. Who knows, maybe it’ll eventually recover, the way Spain did after Franco stepped aside. Improbable but not impossible. If not… Oh well. The country that robbed my great-grandfather for the high crime of being a merchant and that threw my grandma into a Gulag work camp for almost a decade for the high crime of telling a few political jokes to her fellow university students – that country has an awful lot to make up for.

Aaaaanyway… I’m planning my Friday road trip to Ohio. It’s interesting how different towns and municipalities have switched into distinct little camps: some offer only Moderna, some only Pfizer, others can’t even tell what they’ll offer. The latter was why I switched my appointment from the town of Warren (their description was essentially a big shruggie emoji) to Toledo, which has a Pfizer-only vaccination center. If anyone asks, I am and always have been from Toledo. Love ya, Glass City! Goooo Rockets! Or Walleyes when it’s hockey season! Suck it, Bowling Green Falcons!! Go team go!!! There, that should help me pass any scrutiny, I think. Aside from my Canadian license plate and phone area code, I’m invincible: got my US passport, got a fake local address memorized, and overall treating it with the same sort of overkill seriousness that Annie from NBC’s Community did for her fake ID background. After all, how often does one get to roleplay as a vaccine spy in another country? Heh.

In covid news, the majority of US adults have now received at least one shot of their covid vaccine: as of today, 209,406,814 vaccines have been administered to 50.4% of all US adults. That is huge. Absolutely huge. Maybe now Biden’s lawyers will find some clever loopholes to kinda-sorta-not-really break the 2020 contract and export all the vaccines they’re not using to other countries. (Not even necessarily Canada – literally anyone, ideally Brazil.)

Meanwhile, in Canada… There’s a strange generational standoff: the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved only for people 55 and older. They had their pick of Pfizer, Moderna, and AZ but refused to take the latter, which resulted in a lot of half-empty vaccination clinics and, as some pharmacists claim, precious AZ vaccines expiring because no one under 55 was allowed to get them. (One pharmacist wrote about a 53-year-old plumber literally crying because he couldn’t get the AZ shot and nothing else was available.) This is a zero-sum game: by declining the AZ vaccine, they take away a Pfizer or Moderna shot from the younger crowd. The younger crowd, in turn, can’t get their hands on AZ even if they sign a liability waiver. The consensus right now is that the older folks are getting scared shitless through social media, word of mouth, and sensationalist TV reporting on AZ: they’re not deliberately malicious after the sacrifices other age groups have made over the past 14 months, but it sure seems like that from the outside looking in…

Good news on that front, then: Canada’s federal health minister, Patty Hajdu, has just announced that provinces are “free to use” the AZ vaccine on anyone 18 and older. The NACI committee (which, as far as I can tell, is not elected by anyone and wields remarkably disproportionate power for a bunch of mere advisors) is expected to officially concur in a few days. The practical outcome is that Ontario has said it’ll start administering AZ to folks 40 and older. (Great news, plumber-dude!) About time, eh.

And in all the insanity with Ford’s changes and counter-changes, I forgot to mention that even though Canada’s Moderna shipments are delayed, we’ll be getting a lot more Pfizer. We’ll be getting 8 million doses on top of what had already been ordered, and they’ll arrive between May-July. A total of 24 million Pfizer doses will get here between April-June if all goes well. That is excellent, excellent news – though I’m not sure if local provincial governments will be able to handle the logistics of vaccinating literally everyone. I hear good things from British Columbia, but Ontario has not been very organized, to put it mildly… We’ll see.

Good night, y’all.

Plague diaries, Day 400

Saturday evening.

Another anniversary, eh? Honestly, the thing that impresses me the most, anniversary-wise, is that I’ve logged over 300 consecutive days on DuoLingo. My Spanish is still quite broken but it’s definitely better than it had been before the pandemic.

Another day of the forever quarantine: reading, waiting, hibernating. It’s been six days since my mini-war with Switch Health’s video chat system, and five days since a courier picked up my test kit. Their portal says tests get processed within 3-5 days… After spending 20 minutes in their online chatroom, a customer support representative agreed that this is, indeed, weird, and assigned a special priority to get my kit located and processed.

I spent a couple of years processing escalations from Amazon’s FBA sellers: all in all, I processed 25,000 of them. (Why yes, that was indeed hell.) I’m getting some serious déjà vu from this system: it sounds like their backlog is huge, and processing things in FIFO order still takes more time than their service-level agreement, which means waiting and escalating is the only way. Today is day 16 of my quarantine (day 15 if you exclude the travel day), and I’m pretty sure no one has ever reported an incubation period that long. At least the weather is grey and chilly and miserable, or I would’ve been even more tempted to just run outside and, I don’t know, speed-walk around the block like a Canadian outlaw? It’s literally in my dreams at this point.

No Man’s Sky still has some gameplay-breaking glitches, even after all these years, so I’m going to cheat on it with Dying Light, which has just finished downloading…

In covid news, Ontario’s government faced severe backlash from absolutely everyone after their new restrictions got announced. They’ve managed to unite absolutely everyone, which is sort of touching and beautiful in its own way. Business owners, cops, doctors, people who hate lockdowns, people who don’t hate lockdowns but like intelligent measures, etc… This front page from a local newspaper should give you some basic idea of just how upset people are. In the past 24 hours, a lot of local police departments tweeted that they will not stop random pedestrians and drivers to ask for their papers, followed by an official statement from the Ontario government backtracking that particular order.

In addition to that, a lot of parents got righteously pissed off that new restrictions shut down playgrounds without doing anything about factories or warehouses. (Latest research claims that most cases come from industrial workplaces.) Guess what? The playground ban got reversed too. If all these local back-and-forth events I describe are confusing to you, try and imagine what it’s like for 14.6 million people to live this way, day by day. The whole thing stinks of some random backroom compromises: it doesn’t look like any doctors or scientists had been consulted at all. It’s good and right that they’ve reversed the course on this, but in doing so, they made themselves look like even more of a joke.

While I was typing all of that up, I got a text from Switch Health – looks like they found my test kit after all. Not gonna lie, I was concerned that the results page would say the test was inconclusive, thus sentencing me to another week of house arrest, but nope – I’m free! Wooooo! I don’t know why the PDF was in French, but I’ll take it. It’s almost 9pm here, and dark, and chilly (49 degrees Fahrenheit) but I’m off on a celebratory walk around the city, if only to get some exercise after 16 days of doing absolutely nothing. Wooooo! Woooooo, I say!

Oh, and Alaska has become the first state to offer vaccines to tourists (starting June 1) after also being the first state in the union to offer them to any resident 16 or older. Vaccine distribution kiosks will be in airports, just outside the secure area. Way to go, Alaska!

Sorry, brand new zombie game – I’m off to stalk the dark and empty streets of Toronto for exercise and brain-oxygenating purposes.

Good night, y’all. Stay safe.

Plague diaries, Day 399

Friday night.

This ends in seven days. I finally made it through my last normal workweek and started my two-week vacation, and then… Wait until next Friday, drive to Ohio, get a test and my second shot, drive back. Send a two-week notice to my boss. Cash in the remaining personal time for the last week, then work (from home, as always) on the first week of May, while waiting two weeks for the second shot to fully settle. And then… Freedom. Early retirement, immunity, no more rat race, just pure exploration, and doing whatever the hell I want. (Within the latest public health guidelines, of course.) This is it, this is the final stage at last – at long, long last.

Exactly 168 hours from now, I’ll be back home, likely experiencing some side effects as the second shot of Pfizer does its job. So soon. So very soon…

As promised yesterday, I switched to a pizza-based diet. Heh. The delivery guy handed it to me from around the lobby door, with both of us masked. I’m pretty sure I didn’t jump on this strange novelty (my first pizza in at least three months) like a ravenous beast, but it probably wasn’t pretty. I feel the way a python likely feels after devouring a medium-sized mammal: at some point, I’ll have to throw something else in my piehole, but that point is very far away. (And there’s plenty left for tomorrow.)

Another sign that things are looking up: a girl I went out on two dates with, well before the pandemic, texted me out of the blue. We’re not relationship-compatible, but it’ll be great to start building a local friend circle again. In fact, that’ll probably be my biggest project this year. And meanwhile, as I spend all this time in lockdowns and quarantines, I might go ahead and install Dying Light – a zombie game that I somehow completely missed, even though it came out in 2015. How weird is that? Steam really ought to offer discounts to people living in covid disaster areas, but fiiiine, I’ll pay the full $60 CAD for the enhanced edition. It’ll pay for itself if it keeps me from going mad with this house arrest business.

In covid news… There is a lot of covid news. After rescheduling his press conference multiple times this afternoon (presumably to reach some consensus on new measures), Ford told us that Ontario will not get hit with a curfew, but we also won’t be getting paid sick days. Without them, the rest of this giant restriction list is really rather pointless. I simply don’t understand political conservatives who oppose paid sick days: yes, it costs them some money to institute that, but it costs even more money if a sick employee infects their colleagues and customers. I get that it’s a one-way door: once they offer it, it’ll hurt them a lot politically to take it away later on. But, you know, pandemic? People dying? Full ICUs?.. I guess that doesn’t phase them.

One of the weirder new restrictions is the travel ban. Unless you have a good reason to drive into Ontario from Quebec or Manitoba, you might get turn around at a checkpoint. More disturbingly, the police have been authorized to pull over any car or stop any pedestrian, ask for their ID, and write them a ticket if they’re not traveling for an essential purpose. (Groceries, pharmacy, medical, exercise, or work.) An awful lot of civil rights groups are mighty pissed off about this. I hope that the sheer laziness of Ontario’s cops will be our salvation. They do nothing about people who drive 30% over the speed limit (or 20% under, for that matter) on highways. They did nothing about the BBQAnon demonstrations in November. (No fines were issued to any of those morons, as far as I know.) They stood there and watched as international travelers walked away from airports and said they’d rather get a fine than quarantine in a hotel. It’s possible we’ll end up under a miniature dictatorship with cops gone wild, but I think it’s more likely that absolutely nothing will happen. We’ll see.

Perhaps the weirdest part of it all was Ford asking other provinces for help (500 nurses, 100 respiratory therapists, etc) while declining Justin Trudeau’s offer of sending Red Cross to Ontario to help us out. (That is literally what Red Cross is for.) Trudeau is Ford’s political opponent (or so Ford thinks), and this is yet another in the long series of remarkably counterproductive decisions that keep extending our pandemic here in Ontario. The one thing they couldn’t restrict was air travel: that belongs to the feds, not provinces. People online are already joking about Ontario ordering a shipment of surface-to-air missiles… Oh, and the state of emergency/stay-at-home thingy got extended by two weeks. Now it’ll last until May 20th. It’s so extremely strange (not for the first time, nor the last) to consider that I’ll be fully vaccinated and living in an empty, locked-down city: my post-pandemic life will overlap with a full-on emergency order for weeks. That’s gonna be so strange…

Meanwhile, elsewhere… Things are getting much worse in India. Yesterday, they had 217,000 new cases, more than anywhere else in the world. That’s less scary per capita, but those numbers are growing and getting worse. This article describes (and shows in its video) the horrific hospital situation in New Delhi, with two patients per bed, and with dead bodies being placed outside the ward before they’re taken to the mortuary. A coworker of mine casually mentioned today that he just lost two relatives in India. Small world… India is capable of great logistical feats, but it also has well over a billion people, and it might not be possible for them to keep following social distancing rules. I hope things get better there, but if they don’t… That will get ugly.

Good night, y’all.