And then finally Spring

Winter has always been my favorite season. The silence, the stillness, the strange brightness of a night full of snow and stars, all these things have always made winter feel like a secret, and I’ve never understood those who dreaded its arrival.

Until this year. This year, winter was a smothering gloom I struggled and struggled to get through. As happy to be at home and in my head as I always am, months nine through twelve of the pandemic wore me down to the nub and made the world dark.

But now, with temperatures jumping high enough, fast enough to make the sap in the maples stop flowing as soon as it’s begun (very much a bad thing to be sure), I’m happy to drink in the light—and to see others doing the same—when I go out to walk by the road in the shallow mud left behind by the receding snow.

Also the geese are back, and they feel as much like a miracle as ever.

What Opening Looks Like

I’ve realized too late that it would have been cool to keep the Government’s various info sheets as they were released as a reminder of how restrictions changed over time for when the slow stages have congealed into a simpler memory of the “the Troubles.” Alas, I didn’t think of it in time.

In the spirit of “better late than never,” here’s what a late-stage guidelines info sheet looks like.

The Times of Crisis

The troubles move at their own times. There are waves of infection. There are also waves of reaction. They don’t however move together the way I’d expected. The virus continues its steady march but what we feel is mostly about what we’ve been feeling. The facts seem to have little to do with it.

Here things are opening up bit-by-slow-bit and seem to be under control. Yet my own reactions, while rooted here in Quebec, are also tied up in my worries about the situation in Florida and Georgia which (as I feared) is spiraling out of control.

Emotionally, this is a bit like standing with one foot on a dock and the other on a loose boat. It’s not the bit of stable ground that matters.

Cross Post: Errands Under Lockdown

New post at Speaks at Home.


My last post, once I saw it online, startled me with how little it captured the experience of running the errands I spoke about during the COVID pandemic rather than normal times.
Quebec was still under lockdown when I went out, even if the plan for reopening is now under way. The Beav and I have been strict about following the orders: we’ve gone out for groceries, bought as much as we could when we did, and stayed home otherwise. And this since March 13th. It turns out though that bike shops and hardware stores are, along with grocery stores, “essential services.”

So my day started with me standing outside the bike shops wearing a mask, my bike in a rack and my explaining to a worker who was two metres away, what I thought needed to be done on the bike and him telling me he’d call if something else came up as they worked. They’d call in a week to let me know when to pick it up. I never set foot in the store.

At the grocery store, I stood in line, spaced two metres apart waiting for one of the fifty people inside to leave so the next person in line could go into the foyer, wash their hands at the sink, take a cleaned cart and go inside to shop. Arrows on the floor tell you which direction you can walk up the aisles in order to minimize the chance of getting too close to someone. When it was time to check out, there was another line: I stood on my circle waiting for the circle in front of me to clear off, then moved up. When I was at the front of the line, I waited until an employee sent me to a cashier who was empty and had finished cleaning their station from the last customer.

At the hardware store, it was just like at the grocery store, only harder to manage because how do you follow the arrows when you can’t know which plants you’re going to get until you’ve seen all that they have on offer?

These three errands took me nearly four hours.

New Normal

Talking about a “new normal” a few weeks ago felt like hysteria, but it seems pretty clear that many of the changes in daily life brought on by the COVID pandemic will be with us for the rest of the year.

The most obvious example is the rumblings about online courses in the Fall. Nothing’s been announced officially yet, but a few days ago I accepted that I should begin thinking about what classes given entirely online would look like. The difference between a course that finishes online and one offered there exclusively is like the difference between a whale and a fish: many of their similarities are only apparent and fall away when you pay closer attention. I’ve only just started and already I’m reconsidering things I took to be fundamental.

So with the promise of months of social distancing to come and plenty of work to do along the way, I’m grateful to be out of the city far enough to be able to sit outside watching the river or to take walks around the fields. I’m locked down but not confined, and I’m close enough to the natural world to see the muskrat swimming along the banks of the river or the mourning doves nesting under a corner of the roof or the squirrel braving the road to get at the stand of trees beyond the pavement.

It helps to see these creatures moving along at a familiar rhythm in a world that they take to be largely unchanged.

And yet…

Our lives are upside down, and yet:

  • hundreds of geese floated by on the river today, resting for a moment on their regular trip north;
  • the ladybugs that infest the yard and cover the windows of the house are back, right on schedule;
  • the crocus are blooming, more this year than we’ve ever had;
  • the robins are collecting straw and twigs and each morning they are in the garden, heads cocked to the side, listening for the worm that’s crawled too close to the surface in search of warming soil.

The world beyond us moves to its familiar rhythms. It’s a scary time, but things will be okay.

The Day Fear Hit

Yesterday was the day where I feel as if I felt something of the amplitude of the coming crisis in real terms and was stricken once I did by genuine fear. Some of the people I love live in the parts of the US that have been doing the absolute least to contain the outbreak. A few are working in hospital ERs with little protective gear. Others are in grocery stores with none at all. Their health and safety depends upon the behaviour of their neighbours, and I don’t trust that people are being told what they must do or that they are doing it if they are. And so American individualism has now become a non-metaphorical disease agent.

Yet, at least emotionally and as is often the case with me, the way out is through, and after a day of real worry, I’ve woken up today clearheaded and ready to work on projects. The situation hasn’t changed, but I at least feel up to doing more than cycling through texting then staring at the ceiling then texting then etc.

Moving a Course Online

Courses are cancelled for the rest of the semester, and colleges and universities are expected to provide students with a distance completion option online. Watching how that rolls out and seeing what it entails in my own classes has been revealing.

On a more global level, crisis has shown various powers-that-be for what they are. I’m thinking specifically of the contrast between the many teachers unions that have stepped forward to exert power by offering to help make things work better (without sacrificing teachers) and the very different approach of the few that have grubbed for power by trying to provoke the failure of administrators who are as overwhelmed by the pandemic as the rest of us. The details of how that’s played out on the ground is insider baseball and not interesting to outsiders. But my point is simply that crisis reveals character, and these are insights to be held onto for later.

On a more personal level, transforming a face-to-face course into something that can be given online in a compressed timeframe has been more involved and more complex that I would have imagined possible. I fully expected it to be difficult — just setting up and explaining how to use communication channels that are manageable with 120+ students reaching out every few days is daunting — but today as I was working, I started flipping through one of the legal pads I use for my realtime note taking looking for an idea I remembered jotting down. I flipped and flipped and flipped through iteration after iteration of inadequate idea after undeveloped idea until finally, suddenly, I found myself at the front page of the pad: I’d forgotten work had begun in a different pad. As I stood up to fetch the pad I needed from my other table I felt as if my labor was being gauged by page count: I hadn’t expected creating online materials to be a two-pad problem!

Now, after a few days of work, I feel like I’m nearly ready to send out documents, thankfully, and just in time: courses start back tomorrow. (Are my colleagues? I hope so. Whether they are or not, I’m confident they’ll manage.)

In my case — and this feels like yet another Tinderbox plug — the fact that I’d been playing in my course file early in term and had decided to track how each activity either taught, practiced or evaluated a ministerial objective proved to be a godsend. As I entered this information, it really could not have seemed more pointless: these basic governmental requirements are so basic that they take care of themselves in most courses. But in the current situation, being able to see plainly what had already been taught and evaluated allowed me to very quickly identify what remained to be done. If this information hadn’t already been readily visible in the links of my course map, the rabbit holes I would have fallen into and the herrings (red) I would have chased as I tried to figure out how to plan the abbreviated final weeks of the semester are quite literally innumerable. 

Earthquakes. Frogs. What next?

The Beav and I were shaken awake this morning by an earthquake. No damage and not that strong — only 3.6 — but it was enough to make me begin to think apocalyptically when my brother sent me a photo, taken on his walk around the neighbourhood, of five desiccated frogs caught seemingly mid-leap on the sidewalk outside his house.

Busy-work During the Pandemic

One week into Québec’s various lock-down measures, people have gotten past the dull smothering shock of the first days and have used the days that followed to hone their anxiety to a fine edge. Some are now eager and ready to swing it around in the world. Of the ways I see this happening, those I find the most fascinating (read: distressing) are the frantic efforts to force work colleagues who seldom meet face-to-face to video conference or have long interactive Google doc style discussions about how we are going to proceed with our work while in isolation.

It all feels like a deeply anxious effort by people to insist to themselves (knowingly or not) that there’s no need to be anxious because their work lives are proceeding normally thanks to an exciting, vaguely macho, taking-charge-of-events move toward using “modern” tools. (“Never waste a crisis!”) It also feels like an effort to enlist others into participating in and thus becoming complicit with a performance of “move along, nothing to see here.”

I sound unsympathetic toward these people, but I’m not. I understand that they are just stressed and looking for a productive way to put their attention elsewhere. But the simple truth is that things aren’t normal and pretending they are — to yourself or for others — is unhealthy. We don’t know how things will develop and pretending we do in order to be busy will probably waste effort and nurse anxiety. In a worst case, it could even create new problems that we’ll have to work around or fix later. 

When I think of the people I love who are spread across Québec, the States and even Europe and who are either physically vulnerable or have very little capacity to survive long financial hardship, I’m afraid and feel genuine dread. It takes effort on my part to set those feelings in their place, to text or call to check in, and then to accept all the other things I can’t do to change or fix their situations. But I don’t really have another choice: pretending I’m not feeling what I feel doesn’t help and neither does making believe I’m helping more than I am. 

I recognize that most people aren’t introverted and don’t, therefore, have “social distancing” as part of their standard coping-with-stress toolkit. They rely on “fighting at meetings,” “running around,” or “bossing people” for that, and in normal circumstances, the world’s stacked in their favour, rewarding them for behaviour that is essentially self-care. But for now the tables are turned. For now, accepting things as they are, finding quiet ways to deal with stress and loneliness, and waiting for the right moment to act are the best ways to cope. They also seem like better ways of getting through all of this un- (or at least minimally) harmed. 

And if you still need some “action” in order to be okay? Volunteer.

Quarantine Chains

As of today the Beav is officially quarantined because one of his work colleagues has tested positive for COVID. In practical terms, this means he’s to be isolated at home for fourteen days. Me as well? So now we’re both adjusting to the subtle but real distinctions between “social distancing” and “confinement for the greater good.”

I’m such a novice at all this that it never occurred to me that as I came to the end of one quarantine I could find myself immediately in another. Turns out this is absolutely possible and feels a lot like an annoying Boss mechanic in a video game: as soon as you’re free, it chains and you’re pinned again.

Getting News in the Plague

On Anne-Marie Dussault’s 24/60 the other night, a panelist gave advice for getting through the next few weeks. It boiled down giving yourself one hour of (screen) news per day and getting that news from one or two reliable sources that you pick in advance. 

I’ve tried it and think it’s a good idea. I get necessary info in a timely manner without turning quarantine into a rolling trauma.

Movies about Forestalling the End

It occurs to me that one thing that’s strange about the staying in is precisely that the story of staying in doesn’t match my movie narratives. We aren’t all staying home in order to survive an apocalypse. We’re staying home to try to keep that apocalypse in check and maybe even keep it from actually happening. In a sense, we’re asked to save the world by staying home and doing nothing, and the better this strategy of doing nothing works, the less it should look like we needed to do nothing at all.

I don’t think we’re going to hit that particular best-case scenario — things look like they are going to be bad — but still, off the top of my head, I can’t think of movies where this is how hiding away with relatives works. 

Plague Diaries: “Vacation” Begins

Over spring break, I travelled to the States to visit family I hadn’t seen in a long time, some of them quite elderly. COVID-19 was still just “the coronavirus” and didn’t really affect much as I left other than having to say whether I’d traveled to China or not during check-in. Yes, two planes of Canadians had been flown in from a Chinese hot zone and quarantined on a military base in the days before I’d started my trip, but the crisis was still largely confined to Asia: Quebec hadn’t had a single case. But then, soon after I left, COVID-19 broke loose in Europe, then Seattle and after that, the deluge. Florida’s first cases were identified the final days of my trip. 

My selfish fear those last days was that I’d catch a cold or the flu, have fever when I travelled and be forcibly quarantined upon arrival in Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Thankfully that didn’t happen. I stayed healthy, got home and enjoyed a few days of normal.

Normal didn’t last though. Infections in Canada are cropping up everywhere, and Quebec is racing to “flatten the infection curve.” All the daycares, schools, colleges, and universities are closed for at least the next two weeks. Bars and cinemas were just closed as well, and restaurants were ordered to reduce their seating capacity by 50%. People are being told to work from home and to keep their distance from each other when in public. In a complete reversal of public policy, everyone has been asked not to visit elderly friends and family in residence and assisted living homes. And anyone back from abroad — that’s me — is also asked to self-quarantine for fourteen days. 

Thankfully, the language of the reporting and of these announcements has focused on community, civic responsibility and protecting others, not on war or on invasion. This has been a relief and is part of why I have the sense that we’re better prepared here to deal with the crisis than the States are: at least we have a politically viable language for speaking about working cooperatively.

Yet despite everything, there’s still a palpable anxiety in the air, and I saw it in the nervous “is outside wrong?” smiles of the people who, like me, took a short walk in the sun yesterday afternoon. Everyone’s geared up by the endless announcements and the frantic preparations of the past few days, days that have felt like the first ten minutes of a zombie movie even if there are no helicopters, no cars rushing to get across the bridge before it closes, no soldiers being overrun by infected hordes. The streets are quiet, the first geese are starting to land on the river as they head north, and all we are being asked to do is to sit home and wait things out for two weeks, maybe more.

The disconnect between these simple, pleasant demands and the misery promised by the worst case scenarios has made spending the next two weeks doing one of my favourite things — staying home, doing my own stuff — feel odd and unnatural.

Crosspost: A New Blog

This is the first post of a new blog experiment that I imagine as a space for micro (and perhaps not so micro) blogging. It is also an experiment in building a simple HTML blog without WordPress or some other CMS operating as middleman. I’m doing all the writing and HTML generation in a Tinderbox file that’s simple but that should be able to grow (or not) as I need it to, unlike the last time I tried something similar.

Ordinary Human Language still exists and I may continue to write there. I haven’t decided yet. That blog began as a place where I posted book and movie logs, built a commonplace book, and eventually, began sharing thoughts about how I use Tinderbox. There’s a lot there. However, the blog is moribund, has been for awhile, and my attempts to bring it back to life haven’t been very successful. In part, the problem appears to be that, for the moment, I’m not very invested in posting the kinds of things that blog grew to focus on. Beyond that, I’m also just tired of having to keep up with WordPress to maintain such a simple site.

So this blog is a new start built up from an empty TBX file composed of: 

  • three template notes,
  • one agent, and
  • one container for post notes.

Things couldn’t be more barebones than this. Yet if you’re reading, it works. And all of it came together in a couple hours this morning.

What’s posted now is very close to the look I have in mind for the blog.The color scheme I’m using is based on Ethan Schoonover’s excellent Solarized. Currently, the blog appears as a single page of posts, which will be fine for a long while because I imagine this as a text-only space. That said I am also exporting posts as individual pages, and eventually, I intend to link to these from the post titles on this page in order to create permalinks. I might also set a cap on the post count for this page and create an archive for the overflow. I’ll see though. Any changes will happen slowly and in response to whims or bursts of inspiration.