Tag Archive: 2020


Plague diaries, Day 293

Thursday afternoon. The very last day of 2020. A year ago today…

I don’t usually do these end-of-year review posts, but this has been the strangest year of my life, and I don’t want this memory to fade away or get overwritten by future experiences to the point where I can’t honestly what I’d been thinking on this last day of this terrible year.

I just got the keys for the sad Toronto studio, so that’ll be the sixth place I will have lived in over the course of 12 months. (My previous rental, my current rental I share with landlords, my studio rental, and the three AirBnBs where xgf and I stayed for 72 days.) Even with my tumultuous lifestyle, that was a new record for me. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to go on a trip again without asking myself, “what if this turns into a 72-day odyssey?”

A year ago, I never would’ve thought that I’d end up traveling all over Ontario and Quebec in 2020; that I’d move in with my gf; that I’d end up on a roadtrip exploring abandoned mines and running away when my Geiger counter (another new acquisition) starts shrieking at top volume. A year ago, I thought I’d finally treat myself to an international vacation (yay credit card miles) in Tunisia, and then spend a couple of weeks in the summer exploring Montreal and its unique culture. (Obviously, neither of those worked out.) A year ago, I didn’t even dare to imagine that I’d experience a stock market windfall that would get me almost to the magic goal I need to quit the rat race. A year ago, I thought I knew how to say things in French, despite never having taken even a single lesson. Heh.

Things 2020 taught me:

  1. Some countries or regions are more reliable than others. The US, the UK, and the EU failed in their containment measures (and some didn’t even try), while Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, and Taiwan succeeded. I’d expected the US to fail to respond years ago, when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and all they got in response was a bunch of paper towels tossed at them by their president…
  2. Canada partially failed (thanks to “leaders” like Ontario’s premier Doug Ford) but partially succeeded. The so-called “Atlantic bubble” did everything right by shutting down travel, instituting quarantines for outsiders, having high mask compliance, etc. They had zero cases for several months and started to see a small uptick only recently. That proves it can be done, right here, right now.
  3. There’s no such thing as too many first aid supplies. In particular, prior to this pandemic I had no idea oximeters even existed. Now that we’re finishing off 2020, who has two thumbs and a shiny oximeter? This guy!
  4. I’m not as much of a hermit as I’d thought I was. Looking back, my fantasies of buying a patch of land by a river in northern Ontario and just setting up a small little compound (with the option to ride a dirt bike to a town 10 miles away to get food) was viable, and it would’ve worked, but it was also a kneejerk reaction to a ton of remarkably loud and uncivilized roommates I had when I first moved to Canada almost two years ago. (A girl with meth addiction who would loudly wail every morning; a 19-year-old guy with a giant dog that never got enough exercise and would bark incessantly all day and all night… Fun times.) I’m still very much an introvert, but damn, I miss human company: not only dating, but simply hanging out and going to meetups and having fun discussions about everything and nothing.
  5. I can survive just fine without cider (my one low-key indulgence) but going without caffeine results in god-awful headaches.
  6. Life is far too short, and much more precious than we think.

As we’re wrapping up this awful year and entering a new one, things won’t magically get better. Just yesterday, the US set a new covid death record for the third day in a row: 3,740 deaths. The new cases from Christmas celebrations are only now starting to show up, and all the New Year’s Eve celebrations will add even more within the next week or two. And the new British variant is apparently spreading quite rapidly… Things will continue to get worse – but later on, as more vaccines are manufactured and distributed and administered, it’ll get slightly better. I can’t even imagine what horrors the first half of 2021 will bring us (hospitals in Los Angeles are already overwhelmed) but that second half should be better, right? Right?..

Trying to predict the future is nothing but hubris, but what the hell. I predict that a year from now, on December 31, 2021, things will be better. There will be enough vaccines, and enough distribution, to knock this fucker down and keep it from spreading like wildfire. There will be celebrations, and parties, and exuberant, heart-breaking and death-defying reveling as those of who us who will have made it through will try so very hard to catch up on this lost year. To forget it all.

I’m fully aware the odds are not in our favour here and now, but hey – hope everlasting.

And as for resolutions?.. I resolve to end this blog series when I get my second vaccine shot, whenever that may be. (May? July? November?..) I never expected this mess to go on for this long: to be fair, I think most people didn’t. This is hands down the most ambitious non-work project I’ve ever undertaken, but it too will end. And beyond that… I resolve to read more about the art of writing – from Deborah Chester, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and the like – and try my hand at writing short stories. (While continuing to slooooowly chip away at my dusty old sci-fi novel draft.) And maybe I’ll even get fairly good with my harmonica, who knows.

Happy New Year, y’all. It will get better. It must.

Plague diaries, Day 292

Wednesday night.

Well, that was fast. I am now the proud owner of a sublease for a very basic studio smack in the middle of Toronto. (And with a parking spot!) The other guy was pressed for time, posted the ad with an offer I couldn’t refuse, and we signed the whole thing by email. (Yay PDFs!) I’ll pick up the keys tomorrow morning (which, unfortunately, means waking up before noon) and move the first batch of my stuff at the same time. It’s curious that my gem pile from the summer roadtrip managed to fit into just three buckets and one small box: they’d spent about five months laid out on a tarp in the corner of my room. Huh. There’s some kind of lesson here about our assumptions and reality.

In theory, I could just grab a Uhaul and move absolutely everything right away, instead of sloooowly transporting stuff from point A to point B (90-minute roundtrip) in my Kia. Just plain old laziness, I suppose. I should be done and out of here in a couple of weeks, hopefully. Three-and-a-half at most. (Ahh, yes, it just came to me. The studio has a fridge but not a freezer. I’ll have to diligently devour all my frozen goodies before I move. Yeah, that’s a perfectly valid reason. Heh.)

Small personal anniversary: today is the 200th day of my DuoLingo language lessons. They take up just a few minutes per day, but I’m better off for having taken them than not. Here is to many more days of linguistic edumacation.

…if this dog barking from the landlords’ daughter’s corgi continues, I might hire that Uhaul truck and run for it within a week. One definite quality-of-life upside of the basic studio: there are no pets allowed. No barking and howling or anything of the sort. Just blissful, beautiful silence.

In boredom news, I’ve borrowed the e-book version of Stephen King’s The Institute after seeing it on the Goodreads “best of 2019” list last night. I mostly like King’s short stories, since I still feel a bit cheated by the ending to his 1,000+page-long novel The Stand, but The Institute is showing great potential so far. King was 72-ish when he wrote it, and his writing and especially character description keep getting better and better.

In covid news, the first member of the US House of Representatives died of covid. Luke Letlow was Louisiana’s Congressman-elect. He was 41. He had no underlying health conditions. He was an anti-masker. He was photographed on many occasions not wearing a mask in indoor meetings. He had two little kids: three years old and 11 months old. Technically, he died of a heart attack. Contextually, that heart attack happened during an operation related to covid. (I’m not sure what that would be: were they pumping oxygenated blood into him?..) Covid deniers are disturbingly gleeful, pointing out that it was his heart that gave out, not his lungs. That’s like saying that a shooting victim died of blood loss: had there been no shooting, they would’ve lived. Had Letlow followed the most basic guidelines, he wouldn’t have caught covid, and he would’ve lived. Will anyone learn from him?..

Earlier, I wrote about other congress-critters who caught covid. Most of them were on the older side, and all of them recovered. Will Letlow’s death finally make his Republican colleagues realize that they’re as vulnerable as the rest of us? That they should maybe try to take this more seriously and stop obstructing aid? Time will tell.

Plague diaries, Day 291

Tuesday night.

Today was a lot more productive than a baseline lockdown day. One of the rental people got back to me: after spending 50 minutes driving to central Toronto (20 minutes on the highway, 30 minutes in the surface street labyrinth), I got to see the place myself. It’s the most basic and barely habitable studio imaginable, but it’s got all the essentials and it’s actually above ground. That last part is key, since Toronto has a ton of barely habitable basements being rented out left and right. This city is Canada’s version of New York, and there’s been a bit of a real estate bubble, to the point where local TV news has a recurring segment with real estate advice. That’s what it must’ve been like to be in the middle class just before 2008. Heh.

The studio is tiny (I’d say about 350-400 square feet) but it meets all my criteria. Better yet, the guy that wants to hand over his lease will pay for January-February, which makes this deal ever more lucrative. (The lease runs through the end of August.) The place looks like an old-timey brick house sliced into as many studios as humanly possible, much like the place in Niagara Falls where xgf and I stayed eight months ago. The kind of place that has signs saying that setting off a fire alarm will cost you $1,320 CAD. Charming and gruff in that slumlord sort of way, but hey, it’s got a parking lot in the back and it’s just a few blocks away from a subway station.

It felt good to get out of the house: this is the farthest I’ve driven in about two months, if not more. Aside from the super-genius who tried to parallel-park by backing into my car in downtown Toronto, it was even enjoyable. (My honking dissuaded him from pursuing that ambitious course of action and testing whether two objects can, in fact, occupy the same point in space and time. Sorry, science.)

In other news, the Dark Matter book by Blake Crouch is full of awesome sauce. It started out as your garden-variety sci-fi yarn about a parallel universe, but then it went someplace I’d never seen in any work of science fiction, and I’ve devoured a lot of sci-fi, eh. This book is about quantum physics, and love, and life, and choices not taken, and regret, and acceptance. The prose itself is pretty (and occasionally brilliant), and the occasional quotes from other writers, as well as the afterword, provide a lot of follow-up reading ideas. Speaking of which, how much acid was T.S. Eliot on when he wrote “Burnt Norton“? It was either that or mushrooms because I refuse to accept that something so trippy could’ve been written by a sober mind.

Ditto for this quote by Mark Twain, the context for which I’ve yet to look up: “Life itself is only a vision, a dream. Nothing exists; all is a dream. God – man – the world – the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars – a dream, all a dream; they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space – and you… And you are not you–you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought.”

Hard to believe that I encountered so strange and heavy in a pop-culture bestseller. I think I might have a new favourite author now. Next up… Not sure. I’m very tempted to read The End of October by Lawrence Wright because that book came out before the current pandemic, and apparently predicted the worldwide dysfunction perfectly. However, I’m trying to read things that would distract me from pandemics, not give me a what-if scenario. Perhaps later.

In covid news, the vaccine rollout is happening a lot slower than anticipated. In the US, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar had initially promised 100 million vaccinations by the end of 2020. Then that number fell to 20 million. As of right now, only 2.1 million got vaccinated. That’s a big number, yes, but still less than 1% of America’s total population. At this pace, it would take years. Just like I’d feared, there’s no uniform plan: once the vaccines are dropped off, each state has to scramble with their own logistical plans.

Likewise in Canada. Here in Ontario, just over 13,000 shots have been administered, though the initial plan had called for 53,000 by the end of the year. Making things worse, the province’s vaccination clinics took a two-day siesta for Christmas. The official explanation is that they didn’t think medical personnel would’ve been willing to come in and work on those days. (Unofficially, I suspect that was a huge human error made by someone with lack of critical thinking skills and the all-too-common fallacy that holidays are untouchable.) If hostile space aliens ever decide to invade this sorry planet, they should aim for late December, because everything and everyone seems to be shut down during these last few days. I’ve seen (but haven’t opened) some headlines that claim that other countries are actually planning to execute efficient vaccination campaigns with dedicated spaces, schedules, etc. Good for them, eh.

And in much more local news, today’s Least Popular Canadian is Ontario’s finance minister Rod Phillips. It’s been fun to watch the story unfold throughout the day: first, a local journo got the scoop that Phillips went on vacation and left Canada after the legislative session ended on December 13. Then Phillips’s office tried to run interference and claim he might actually be around here somewhere. Then Phillips himself said that he was not, in fact, on vacation, and was very busy with important business calls and other busy business. (Did I convey how busy he claimed he was? Heh.) Then Doug Ford, Ontario’s premier, spotted a great opportunity to distract the public from his own epic fails, and publicly criticized Phillips for breaking the “please do not travel, eh” official guidance. (The “eh” is implied.) Of course, there’ll be no real consequences – the guy still gets to keep his job. Incidentally, he’s on the Caribbean island of St.Barts and not in Costa Rica, which was my first guess. I suppose he didn’t want to mix with the low-budget hoi-polloi.

It takes a fair bit effort to make Canadians angry, but this story seems to have everything. Up until today, most people probably didn’t even know who Rod Phillips was. Today, though, he’s the target of their anger. (I wonder if he’ll issue a non-apology apology and resign. Probably not.) What he did is ultimately inconsequential, but he’s a representative of the largely ineffective Ontario government, and his latest excuse (“Had I been aware then of the eventual December 26th provincewide shutdown, we would have cancelled the trip”) implies he just didn’t want to cancel the trip. That’s some mighty big personal responsibility you got there, mate. Phillips is ultimately a nobody, and this story is a nothing-burger, but today, here and now, he is the avatar of hypocritical government officials. Tomorrow there will be another scandal about someone else, and then more and more, an endless chain of failures that we shall hate and mock and condemn, but which may have been made by most of us. I won’t forgive this idiot, nor will I accept his hollow apologies, but if I squint just a little, I can almost understand where he was coming from, and how he thought he’d get away with it.

Incidentally, my sister, her husband, and their son returned from Miami today. So far, no symptoms. I hope there won’t be.

Good night, y’all – and kudos for not being the Internet’s Least Popular Person today. You’re all doing reasonably great, eh.

Plague diaries, Day 290

Monday night. Just 73.5 more hours until this godforsaken year is gone for good.

I’m starting to get the hang of this whole “rest and digest” thing. It felt utterly alien at first to just stay inside and sleep and consume entertainment, but it’s starting to grow on me, eh. Normally, whenever I have a week or more off, I fly off someplace fun (usually Nevada, alternating between Reno and Vegas) or go on a roadtrip. This is my first staycation in years. Weird, but not unpleasant.

The hunt for Red October my new rental is on. At last, my oversized head will finally do something actually useful. (Let’s be honest, it’s not like I get to practice all that French and Spanish I’m trying to learn.) Toronto’s rental scene has changed a lot since I last looked at it in May. We’d tried and failed to find something in xgf’s price range, which is why she had to move back in with her parents. Has it really been eight months?.. Holy shit – the 72 days of us hiding together ended 218 days ago. That part of the plague year is officially less than 25% of the total experience up to this point. How did all that time fly by?..

Aaaaanyway, back in May, Toronto’s landlords were still being greedy: back then, a good deal on a human-sized apartment (600 sq ft or more, as opposed to those 150 sq ft death traps) in Toronto was around $1,700 CAD ($1,325 USD). Now there’s an overabundance of options in the $1,000-$1,300 CAD range. ($780-$1,013 USD.) It’s probably driven by several things at once… No one wants to live in the middle of a plague-ridden city where all the fun places are perpetually locked down. The ever-expanding work-from-home options mean people don’t need to stay close to the business areas. Travel restrictions mean there’s a whole lot AirBnB business. The unemployment situation (8.5% in Canada; 9.1% in Ontario as of November 2020) means a lot of folks just can’t afford high rent.

Looking at the pictures on some of the local listings, you can just tell that some of them are former AirBnB properties being rented out by month out of what must be sheer desperation. A lot of the apartments are basement units: they vary by size, ceiling height (important when you’re 6’2″), etc. I’m looking for a place I wouldn’t have to share with anyone at all. (Mine! All mine!! mwahaha!!!) My own kitchenette and bathroom and entrance and parking spot. Preferably within walking distance of a subway station: I’ve tried this suburban life, and it just ain’t for me. (And it’ll make things easier when I inevitably sell my car to simplify my life.) My budget is quite flexible and I have just over a month to find a place. My steady job is once again a privilege that gives me an unfair advantage over the rest of my fellow pandemic participants. So far, I’ve sent four emails asking to arrange a viewing. Not a bad start…

My Skyrim orc has discovered a new city and embraced the life of crime. The local Thieves Guild sent him out to shake down local merchants for protection money. That’s not something heroes generally do, but such is life when you want to complete every quest in the game.

My self-improvement quest for classy music that I’d actually enjoy led me to Amazon Music, where I put together a list of classy music scores. I figure playing them all on my Alexa first thing in the morning would be more relaxing than listening to news podcasts. Alas, I’m still just pretending to be into good music, so most of the stuff on my list is just instrumental covers of pop culture soundtracks. (That said, the “Paint it black” theme from Westworld is absolutely breathtaking.) The search for classic compositions that I can actually stomach is still ongoing… Meanwhile, here is the playlist itself – and if it gets hit by digital decay sometime in the future, it currently consists of:

  1. Westworld (Paint It Black) Theme, Rogue One – Out Of This World Movie Themes, Voidoid
  2. Westworld, The Theme System
  3. The Heart Asks Pleasure First, The Composer’s Cut Series, Vol. III: The Piano, The Michael Nyman Band
  4. Indiana Jones Theme, Classics at the Movies: Adventure
  5. Con te partirò (Arr. Shearman for Orchestra), Classical Chillout
  6. Dragonborn, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Original Game Soundtrack, Jeremy Soule
  7. The Avengers (From “Avengers Assemble”), Avengers Assemble Theme, London Music Works
  8. Liberi Fatali (Final Fantasy VIII), Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy, Nobuo Uematsu
  9. The Man with the Machine Gun (Final Fantasy VIII), Distant Worlds II: More Music from Final Fantasy, Nobuo Uematsu
  10. Don’t Be Afraid (Final Fantasy VIII), Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy, Nobuo Uematsu
  11. Badinerie, Wow-Classics Feat. Mozart & Handel

In covid news, even with the low-ball official CDC count, there have been 332,246 covid deaths in the US. We’ve officially crossed the “1 in 1,000” threshold. Early on, the case fatality rate (CFR) was assumed to be 0.1%. Seeing as not everyone in the US has been infected, and more than 0.1% of population have died of covid, that CFR estimate is gonna have to be adjusted upwards.

Imagine a large concert or a football game. Imagine 15,000 people cheering with you. Imagine most, but not all of them, heading for the exit once it’s done. Imagine 15 dead bodies left behind: they might have been perfect strangers, or your friends, or even yourself. Imagine hundreds more who get to go home but end up with severe lifelong damage. That is where the US is right now. With all the Christmas gatherings a few days ago, we’re in for yet another spike in cases, in deaths, in oh-so-predictable news stories about people who started clusters within their families but feign ignorance and accept no responsibility. Systems have momentum. The vaccination campaign is protecting more people with every passing day, but there will be so much more misery…

Stay inside, damn it. Stay masked. Stay safe.

Plague diaries, Day 289

Sunday night.

I ventured outside today to run some errands for the first time in almost two weeks. After I finished adding air to my tires (they deflated in the cold, it seems) at the local gas station, an old man walked up and asked how the process works. He was parked behind me and wasn’t wearing a mask. I backed away while gesticulating and pantomiming the process. It’s simple enough, so I hope he figured it out. I did not stay behind to help him: it was for his protection as well as mine.

As I walked up to the grocery store, a large and seemingly angry guy started heading in my direction, gesticulating and apparently yelling about something, though I couldn’t hear him with his mask on. Maybe he just needed a dollar coin to unlock one of those fancy shopping carts. Maybe it was something else. I speedwalked away from him. There was a time when I gladly would have stopped and helped everyone I encountered. That time was before 1.76 million people died in a global pandemic… I’m not gonna lie – I kinda feel like shit, but empathy is the first thing to go out the window in a crisis situation when you don’t know who might be infected – not even yourself.

Incidentally, even though the Ontario-wide lockdown officially began yesterday, I saw no restrictions at either LCBO (where they keep liquor and, more importantly, cider) or the local grocery store. There was no one at the entrance counting how many people have entered. There were no queues like in the earlier mini-lockdowns. It’s disconcerting.

I spent the afternoon browsing the Goodreads 2020 awards list, with the top books (and top finalists) chosen by readers all over the world. At this point, my Kindle app has several years’ worth of e-books, but most of them just got hoarded along the way. Using my highly scientific approach (reading just about everything about every top book), I created a small list of the main books to peruse. Meanwhile, though, I speed-read through the book I mentioned a few days ago (it got a bit dry after a while) and started “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch. The way he describes the most banal things is fascinating. (E.g., “The headlights graze a teetering stretch of twelve-foot fencing, topped with a tiara of rusted barbed wire.”) The action is great too, to the point where I gobbled up the first three chapters in one go. Good times, eh.

My fantasy-world orc got sidetracked on a huge detour when his GPS spell failed: along the way, he stumbled on a cave filled with vampires, barely managed to kill them all after drinking his last health potion, and contracted a mild case of vampirism. He then spent an hour running toward the nearest city (in the buff, because heavy armor slows him down) to buy a “Cure Disease” potion and fix that nasty affliction. (In other news, human NPCs are remarkably squeamish when a naked orc runs by them.) After all, it would be mighty awkward if the world’s savior were to become a vampire. (Mwahahaha.) Ahhhh, Skyrim…

In somewhat political news, the Nashville bombing was not a terrorist attack after all. It turns out the culprit was a 63-year-old white guy who was a stereotypical loner as well as a certified alarm installer. He died in the blast and apparently didn’t mean to hurt others, which explains why he played the “please evacuate” recording beforehand. At the same time, no one is quite sure why precisely he hated AT&T so much that he destroyed their office. (Incidentally, that also disabled the local 911 line and a whole lot of cellphones, so his actions might have ended up killing people indirectly.) Because of his skin colour, the media is painting him not as a terrorist who set off the first suicide bomb on the US soil but much more mildly. The New York Times headline is “A Quiet Life, a Thunderous Death, and a Nightmare That Shook Nashville” instead of, say, “a suicide bomber terrorizes Nashville on Christmas.” This is madness. If he were Muslim, every headline would have been along the lines of “why didn’t his community de-radicalize him?”

In covid news, the US has crossed the 19,000,000-case mark. The current count is 19.2 million, and that doesn’t account for all the people who can’t get a test, who won’t get a test, or who received a false negative. (Just like one of my favourite writers, John Scalzi, who got sick after his daughter got it from her college roommate. His test was negative but he had all the symptoms and is currently stuck with the dreaded brain fog.) Realistically, the real number of covid cases is several times higher… The exponential growth is getting to the point that even the slowpoke official count logs a new million every few days. If hospitals aren’t already rationing medical care, they will begin soon.

In other covid news… What’s the most polite way to tell your landlords “Sorry, but I think your daughter is a plague vector?” They’ve been having guests for dinner for at least three days in a row now, including tonight. I can kinda-sorta understand (though not accept) celebrating Christmas and Boxing Day, but what the hell kind of holiday is December 28th?.. This time around, there are three guests: their 20-something daughter and her boyfriend, as usual, and a friend of theirs. At least three households under one roof. They typically come over once a week. Given that the new mutated variant is already spreading through Ontario, it’s really just a matter of time before one of the guests brings it (or the plain old normal covid) to one of these gatherings. They may be careful in their everyday life, and the odds may be low, but they’re greater than zero.

I’ll try to politely ask “so, is your daughter as careful as you guys?” or something along those lines, but there is definitely a future where I’ll have to wear a mask in the common areas of the house… My year-long lease ends on February 1st. I’d initially planned on renewing it, but… I’ll spend the rest of tonight online, searching for anyone who would be willing to rent a standalone apartment for six months. Depriving myself of human company altogether would not be good for me, and I’m fully aware that maybe I’m overreacting, maybe I’m being too paranoid. Then again, in my line of work there are only two ways to survive: an open mind and a weapons-grade paranoia. (And as the old saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t a poltergeist with a knife right behind you.”) Given how I’ve outlasted several governors, prime ministers, and presidents in my strict isolation regime, I’m not eager to break that streak just because my landlords are feeling extra-lonely. We all are. Not all of us ignore medical advice and take unnecessary risks, though. They are, on the balance, good people, and it hurts me a fair bit, but we’ll have to part ways.

So it goes.

Plague diaries, Day 288

Saturday night, Boxing Day.

I’ve got no idea what Boxing Day is all about (my landlords said there are sales involved), but hey – that’s another day off at the end of the year, another chance to sleep in. I’ve gotten to the point of indoors relaxation where I had to look up what day this was. All it took to get to that blissful state was two days of sleeping and relaxing. Well, and the fact that I stayed up till 5am last night, mostly just for the novelty’s sake. Life is good, eh.

My orc alter ego in Skyrim has mastered the art of commerce and became a traveling salesman. I hope that world’s economy will be able to deal with the flood of homemade vampire-repelling daggers I dumped on the market. (Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d ever type.) In the process, my character became a bit of a hoarder, so he moved veeeeery sloooowly from one town to another, since both he and his sidekick ended up carrying way too much weight. …I guess no matter how much you try to distance yourself, in the end your video game alter ego becomes your reflection in more ways than one. (I’m not much of an enchanter or an alchemist in real life, but I am good at finance and constantly trying not to hoard. Heh.) Looks like my alter ego will need an alter alter ago.

I forgot how great it feels to do absolutely nothing: just some light reading, a small Spanish lesson, binge-watching a TV show (I love Schitt’s Creek, but the Canadian winter in that show lasts only one episode; what gives?), gaming… This intellectual relaxation has already given me an idea for a new e-book that would be edumacational and also relevant to my poli-sci major. And yes, let’s be honest, my lockdown experience would’ve been entirely different if I had kids. I can’t imagine what that must be like: on the one hand, a whole lot of bonding time for the whole family; on the other hand, nowhere to run and no other adults to socialize with. I cannot understand what people with little kids have been going through this whole year, and I won’t even pretend to. I just have this sneaking suspicion that it’s a whole lot more complicated than my hermit existence with a fairly wide variety of entertainment to choose from. Kudos to you, lockdown parents – I hope you hang in there.

In covid news, things are heating up with the UK covid variant. Two cases were found in Ontario, just east of Toronto. The couple had not traveled and had no high-risk contacts, which means this thing is already here and circulating within the community. Given the less-than-stellar containment efforts (delaying the lockdown until after Christmas, etc), I have zero confidence in the local government’s ability to contain the new variant. It remains to be seen if it’s more dangerous than regular covid but it’s best to play it safe – and Ford’s government doesn’t seem to know the basic rules of the game.

Meanwhile, Japan is closing its borders entirely until at least the end of January after a few cases of the UK variant were found there. Japanese citizens and foreign nationals will still be able to fly in, but they’ll have to spend two weeks in quarantine. No one else will be allowed in. That is a very drastic step, but after everything else the world has gone through in 2020, I fully understand why some would want to crank up their safety measures all the way to 11. We still don’t have nearly enough information on how dangerous this new variant is, or whether the existing vaccines will protect against it. If we have to spend another six months (or a year) locking down and avoiding social contact… I’m too much of an introvert to be out there rioting, but I would definitely be able to relate to those who’d hit the streets in protest. So let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that, eh?

Stay safe, y’all, and happy Boxing Day.

Plague diaries, Day 287

Friday night.

There are few joys greater than being able to wake up on a weekday, see 8:50am on the alarm clock, and go back to sleep without having to scramble in blind panic.

I spent the entire morning lounging in bed (or chilling like a villain, as kids used to say once upon a time) and browsing AirBnB listings around the world. Well, mostly Mexico, really. Despite all the fear-inducing headlines about cartel wars, Mexico is a fine and safe country where millions of people live their lives just fine. I looked at some of the AirBnB rentals, and they’re amazing. In a fun coastal city like Puerto Vallarta, if you rent a place for an entire month (that gets you a special discount), you can find a nice little studio apartment for just $300 USD, which is frankly mindblowing. Or there’s an entire house (five bedrooms, five bathrooms) for just $1,230 USD – a fine destination for a sunny family reunion, eh.

Right now, those are nothing but fantasies – but they’re a great proof of concept. Incidentally, I might have to stop my French&Spanish DuoLingo lessons and stick with just Spanish for now. I may very well move to Quebec at some point within the next five years, but it won’t be within the next two – and I’ll definitely be spending some time south of the US border.

In my other fantasy world, Skyrim, my alter ego (an orc named Grgor) has reached level 25, built a house, and successfully escorted a pilgrim with zero survival instincts to see a giant holy tree. That game still hasn’t quite made me forget about the raging pandemic, but it helps pass the time. More importantly, it keeps me away from my phone, which may as well be the Pandora’s Box of bad news. There was a strange car explosion in the tourist section of Nashville early this morning. Some reports say the RV played a recording of gunshots and warned people to stay away just before it blew up. The whole situation is remarkably weird: three people were wounded and fortunately no one died, but all the buildings in the vicinity are wrecked. Is this the beginning of a new stage for the US politics? Actual car bombs?.. I was in that very neighbourhood less than a year ago during my January work conference. It’s hard to imagine someone trying to attack that fun and tourist-friendly area… I expect we’ll know more within a week.

In covid news, there are reports of allergic reactions to both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines. A doctor in Boston had a bad reaction to the Moderna vaccine, which made some headlines. Apparently, something similar was reported during the vaccine trials, but it was supposedly rare. Then again, the US has already vaccinated over a million people, and given that only a few reported that side effect… On the balance, the vaccine is still overwhelmingly good, but this will give the legion of anti-vaxxers even more fuel to spread misinformation. (On the balance, social media is one of the worst inventions of the twenty-first century.)

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Plague diaries, Day 286

Thursday night, Christmas eve.

Hard to believe I finally made it not just to the end of the year but to my 10-day staycation. There are no tropical hostels to visit, no abandoned mines to explore, no friends or family to fly to: just 10 days of exploring the great Canadian indoors and relaxing. (To the extent that’s possible when you know there’s a raging pandemic outside your window. Think zombies outside your bunker.)

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned my quest to learn to love classical music. Well, it turns out Bach isn’t really my cup of tea. Instead of hunting down the most famous works by other composers, I decided to just play random classical music on YouTube to see what clicks. Bad news: my new all-time-favourite is pretty recent and not part of the traditional classic canon. Good news: it’s absolutely amazing. “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” by Michael Nyman is amazing. Light, mesmerizing, and without those pompous baroque overtones you get with some of the classic composers. The long-term goal is to get a full-length playlist of my favourite pieces. I might be from a long line of Eastern European peasants, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn to enjoy high art, eh.

In covid news, a tragedy is unfolding in Toronto. A nursing home ended up with a giant covid outbreak. 58% of the residents (109 out of 188) have tested positive for covid. Likewise for 49 staff members. There have already been 26 deaths, and there will probably be more. The nursing home doesn’t have oxygen tanks or nearly enough resources to control the situation. With enough qualified staff, this situation can still be salvaged, but right now it’s unclear who is doing what. It’s possible that the boilerplate updates from local hospitals don’t represent the urgent work behind the scenes; it’s also possible that there’s a bureaucratic nightmare and no activity. Locally, this is a tragedy and the top news item. Globally, it’s a drop in the bucket, one tragedy among hundreds of thousands. The first covid clusters in the US were in several nursing homes in Washington state. At the time, everyone was on the edge of their seat, refreshing the news feeds to see if the situation improved. Now, less than a year later, these outbreaks make headlines only if they happen right next door.

Will we ever get the full account of all these isolated tragedies around the world, preserved for future generations and those who have survived? Will anyone be capable of reading it in its entirety?..

Plague diaries, Day 285

Wednesday night.

The last full workday of the year… Folks are mostly calling it in at this point, with everyone leaving early tomorrow – followed by the extraordinary extravagance of having not two, not three, but 10 consecutive days all to myself. The rarest luxury…

Boredom status: I’ve started playing my personal drug of choice – Skyrim. That game is nine years old but it’s still more engaging than most of the stuff they release these days. (Just look at the Cyberpunk 2077 fiasco.) The more or less endless open world, hundreds of quests, the freedom to be an herb-gathering alchemist or a bloodthirsty monster slayer – and, of course, dragons. Oh, and amazing eye candy: the perfectly textured world, the night sky with its two moons, the unbelievable landscapes… I’m not sure if I’ve spent hundreds or thousands of hours playing this game in the past: it always manages to surprise me. Not a bad return on investment for the $45 I spent four years ago.

Over the years, Skyrim inspired me to join the local Search&Rescue group, grow my own mushrooms, join the local mycological society and look for mushrooms with them, start a mineral collection, and experiment with the modern-day version of alchemy – designing the perfect protein smoothie recipe. (FYI, it’s water, frozen berries, a banana, smooth peanut butter, and some protein powder.) It’s a little sad, but I’m not sure if my life would’ve been as interesting if I hadn’t bought this game back in 2016. That also makes me wonder how many potentially life-changing ideas I missed out on by not exposing myself to more games or books or movies. Or maybe this was a one-off, and there’s nothing else out there that would inspire me to such an extent. In any case, my new character, the melee orc named Grgor (who specializes in summoning his fallen enemies to fight by his side) isn’t intellectual enough to deal with all that. I’m almost done with the boring but mandatory grind (yet again) through the game’s first stage, and after that, there should be plenty of exploration. Anything to take my mind off this pandemic business.

In covid news, they’ve just uncovered yet another rapidly spreading mutation – this time in South Africa. As always, nobody knows anything for sure, but it might be infecting more young people than the plain old covid we’ve been dealing with. They think the new mutation might be responsible for South Africa’s recent spike in cases. The UK has already found two people with that strain. So far, 55 countries have set up restrictions on travel the UK. Only five countries have done that with South Africa so far, but that number will likely grow fast. It’ll be more or less impossible to keep that genie in the bottle, I’m afraid… Even the mink covid variant, which was supposed to go extinct after the mass culling in Denmark, ended up surfacing on the west coast of the US before making it to British Columbia. If they couldn’t stop the spread of that, the best they can do with the new contagious strains is slow down the spread and hope to buy some time.

This is frustrating. If anyone is reading this in the future (hi, future people!), then you already know how all of this played out: whether the new UK and South African strains were more dangerous, whether they targeted kids and young adults, whether the regular covid vaccines were effective against them… But here and now, there’s nothing: just the increasingly concerned and panic-filled chatter on social media, just the educated guesses (with plenty of disclaimers) from public health experts who don’t have any concrete data yet. We’ll know more in a few weeks. Until then, though, it’ll be the same old frustration lack of information.

Oh, and Dr Deborah Birx has announced her retirement. Incidentally, she happened to do so right after a news story claiming that Birx and her family traveled for Thanksgiving, violating the very guidance that Birx and her colleagues had promoted. Her official story is that she met up with another household (another guideline violation) at one of her vacation homes to weatherize it and prepare it for sale. She has not admitted that it was a Thanksgiving celebration, and at this point she probably won’t. Traveling to another state to prepare a house for sale and meeting up with your family – but not celebrating anything – on a major holiday is a pretty sloppy lie, and Birx’s refusal to just admit it and own her mistake is a little insulting. Her earlier assurances, back in April or so, that the pandemic would end soon, might have guided the White House’s decisions, and might have made things even worse. The sole positive here is that Birx is finally stepping down: at the very least, she won’t give the anti-mask brigade any more ammunition by breaking her own rules if she becomes a private citizen.

I hope y’all got something interesting (and safe) to occupy you during this holiday season too. Good night, eh.

Plague diaries, Day 284

Tuesday night. I actually had a brief moment of confusion about what day this was: it really does blend together.

I’ve learned something exciting earlier: I was way off about how long I’d need to stay in Ontario (as opposed to backpacking around the world) to maintain my health card. It’s five months, not seven. (Seven months of residency is required to get the card, not to maintain it.) That means I’d actually be able to travel a whole lot more once I leave the rat race. On the other hand, the citizenship rules (after I get my PR) state that I have to physically spend two years in Canada before I can apply. Decisions, decisions… Do I take my time and travel five-six months per year before I can apply five years later? Or should I just spend two uninterrupted years in Canada, followed by getting my citizenship, followed by getting a Canadian passport? (With an occasional trip to Vietnam or Laos or Mexico for a month or so, lest I forget what hot weather feels like.)

It’s absolutely ridiculous to make plans for 5.5 years into the future, but that’s part and parcel of having been born in the USSR, I suppose. (Seriously. Five-year plans. Try them. That’s some good stuff.)

I’ve finally finished Red Dead Redemption, tying off that eight-year project that had been low-key nagging me all this time. The ending seemed, um, unusual – and rather longer than it needed to be. It was an unusual experiment in storytelling, and who knows, maybe that’s why the game got so popular. Not my cup of tea, but kudos to them for taking the creative risk. Not that it always works out: Ocean’s Twelve tried to be too artsy for its own good, and it ended up being a whole lot of nothing instead. (Ditto for Inside Man – the heist movie that just kept going on and on and on.)

In covid news, check out this neat Canadian vaccine tracker, eh. It says that as of right now, 25,382 Canadians have received their first shot of the Pfizer vaccine. That’s not a whole lot (0.068% of Canada’s total population) but it’s a start. I’m guessing the tough part right now is the logistics and making sure the temperature stays sufficiently low. It’s slow but steady progress. There’ll probably be a lot of fanfare once the 100,000th or 1,000,000th Canadian gets vaccinated.

Also, Antarctica has lost its status as the last covid-free continent. There’s a covid outbreak at a Chilean research base in Antarctica (who had that on their 2020 bingo cards?), so if you wanted to escape it all and chill with some penguins, that might no longer be an option. Considering that there’s usually about 1,000 scientists living in Antarctica from March to October, it’s actually a bit impressive that they’ve gone this long without importing the virus. All the other research stations are still covid-free, so this is mostly a symbolic loss, but symbols matter.

Stay away from those Chilean Antarctic research stations, y’all, and happy Solstice+1 Day.