I miss my bar, Pt. III: Two years of this

In which I commemorate the second anniversary of my Last Normal Day, and wax doomy about the state of the pandemic. But nothing lasts forever.

So it turns out getting back into the blogging habit is harder than I thought — failing at my attempt to quit Twitter didn’t help — but here I go trying again. The pandemic has, as I think for many people, scrambled my sense of time anyway. It feels like it must somehow still be 2020, but also like it’s been a lifetime since what used to be “normal”.

It’s March 14th, 2022, the second anniversary of what I think of as my Last Normal Day, when I walked to the barbershop and had my last professional haircut. I’ve been making do at home with clippers and my partner’s assistance, but in a fit of likely-premature optimism, I did book an appointment for this week, so I’ll see my barber again for the first time since then. Still masked, of course; I’ll stick to trimming my beard at home for a while longer, that’s much easier to do anyway.

Pretty much every jurisdiction in the US has dropped mask mandates now, as far as I know, though they’re still requiring them on planes and trains for another month (I’m sure compliance will be even worse than before). In Massachusetts, the average test positivity rate is down around 1.5%, which is great compared to the peak of the Omicron wave (officially 23% in early January, a figure well past the “we cannot possibly accurately measure how much of this shit is out there” threshold) but not great at all compared to last June’s low point of below 0.3%. I miss my bar, but for a glorious couple of weeks there, before even Delta, let alone Omicron, I felt like it was safe enough to go back a few times.

But if letting our collective guard down last summer when case rates were so much lower, because we figured the Alpha wave was done, left us so vulnerable to the worse variants to come, it seems flatly insane to be ending all mitigation measures even though the rates are higher and the new variants are more transmissible. Not to mention insisting on the importance of “getting back to the office” and proclaiming COVID “endemic”, as though the bare assertion would make that true despite over a thousand deaths a day in the US alone. As I said on Twitter a few days ago, it’s like deciding we’re tired of putting out a fire and we need to get back to stacking oily rags everywhere, and those smoldering embers in the corner are probably just going to quietly go out on their own, so we need to just learn to live with constant smoke inhalation.

Medical consensus is growing that somewhere in the range of 10 to 30% of COVID cases result in “Long COVID” chronic post-viral illness, which can be debilitating for some; it also appears that even mild cases can cause physical damage to brain tissue that is visible on scans. The risks of both scenarios are probably reduced by vaccination, but public health officials insisting that it’s silly to try to reduce cases to zero makes me feel like either they’re completely detached from reality, or I am.

What a happy note to end on! I suppose this was always going to be a gloomy anniversary, but I will try to get back to posting a couple times a week. I have other things I’d like to talk about. Keep wearing the highest quality, best fitting masks you can afford whenever you might be indoors with other people outside your own home, use rapid tests (and get your second set of free tests from covidtests.gov, if you haven’t — or your first and second, if you haven’t gotten either! — a measly eight tests per household is wildly inadequate but they won’t do more if there’s not even a demand for this) if you think you may have been exposed, get a PCR test if a rapid test is positive or you have symptoms, get vaxed and boosted if you haven’t, and try to protect the unvaccinated and vulnerable people in your life, since the government has decided that’s just not really their job.

I said up top that my sense of time is scrambled, and I have that Groundhog Day-like feeling that it’s both been forever and no time since the world changed, but a while ago a friend said something I’m holding on to: “Nothing has ever lasted forever before.” Everything ends, and the pandemic will too, but it hasn’t yet; and the more we act like it’s still a real danger, the sooner it will be over.

Enough rambling for now. Maybe next time I’ll talk about guitars. In the meantime, here’s a picture of my cat.

Moss, a small black long-haired cat, sitting in a sunbeam on a rug. A guitar amplifier is in the background.
This reminds me I really need to vacuum the living room rug.

I miss my bar, Pt. II: A year of this

It’s the Ides of March (by the way, check out Dessa’s Ides project — a new single each 15th, for the first six months of the year — so far “Rome”, “Bombs Away”, and today’s drop, “Life on Land”) and the weekend was full of musings about the anniversary of the pandemic “becoming real” for most Americans. Here’s mine.

A year ago this just-past Saturday was Friday, March 13th, 2020. That was the last time I sat and drank a beer at a bar, chatting with the bartenders and fellow patrons, a weekly social activity I feel the lack of very keenly; over the summer I did occasionally go back to have a pint at the outdoor tables one of my regular spots set up, but it’s not the same. I haven’t been to my other regular joint at all, save to pick up a to-go Easter dinner last year.

A year ago Sunday, on Saturday, March 14th, 2020, was the last time I had a professional haircut. I bought some cheap electric clippers and with my partner’s assistance have been able to manage an adequate job, especially since hardly anyone sees me without a bulky headset on anymore, anyway.

Daylight Saving Time also just kicked in over the weekend, so I’m in that awkward period of adjusting to the missing hour. (My Senator is trying to do something about that, at least.) I’ll spend the rest of my life, I guess, adjusting to this missing year, and I know I’m one of the luckiest ones — I’m only missing the year, not my health, not any loved ones. I have friends who did get COVID, and who are still unsure whether or how badly or how permanently they’ll have any of the long-term symptoms that seem commonly associated with the disease, but all of them survived it. Over half a million in the US (well over, as the official tallies are known to be drastic undercounts) did not, mainly because of the actions of the federal and state governments over the course of 2020.

How, as a society, do we recover from something like this? “Carefully,” as the dad-joke goes, I suppose, but we won’t even fully understand all the harms we’ve suffered for years, if ever. Trauma can settle, like varicella zoster in the nerves of the spine, where we don’t really notice it, and produce unexpected effects long after the event.

I’m not going anywhere with this, I don’t have a conclusion, other than “things didn’t have to be this way,” but that’s true of everything. It just seemed worthwhile to mark the anniversary of my Last Normal Day.

[Update: I failed to link to Emily Hauser’s vital pieces, from October and from February, which get at this issue far better than I can. They say the worst thing a movie can do is remind you of a better movie you could be watching instead, and Emily’s a better writer than I am, but I didn’t link to her until the end of the post, so you had to read my thing anyway. So there!]

I miss my bar

Well, lots of us do, what with the ongoing Panasonic. But also, I recently encountered a very clever website called I Miss My Bar, which is a very simple idea, cleanly executed: several toggleable and volume-adjustable channels of distinct sorts of bar-sounds ambience (conversations, the clink of glasses, street noises outside, rain on the windows) plus an embedded Spotify playlist of the sort of music a bar might be playing. You toggle the different sounds on or off, and adjust their relative volumes, to get a mix that approximates the background noise of your own favorite local spot, and it’s really surprisingly soothing.

It got me thinking, somehow, about Bernband and about Shamus Young’s Pixel City, and about the good old days of fanciful WinAmp audio visualizers like MilkDrop. I have an HDMI cable running from my desktop to the office TV, which I usually use to watch games on WNBA League Pass, but I can also put a browser window pointed to I Miss My Bar over on the TV and have its ambient audio piped through the attached Sonos; but then the screen itself is just showing the static web page.

It would be nice to have a more appropriate, and more dynamic, visual on the TV to go with those sounds.

More on that later, maybe.

Happy New Year

Well, it’s 2021. 2020 was pretty bad! it’s gonna take a lot of work to make 2021 good, but maybe we’ll all manage it together.

One positive change I’m making is that I’ve quit Twitter. I don’t currently plan to delete my account — it’s useful to have posts here automatically linked over there, and there are a lot of people there I’d hate to lose touch with, so if the account stays accessible they can at least find out why I’m not tweeting anymore — but a couple of weeks ago Twitter notified me that it was my tenth anniversary on the site and asked if I wouldn’t like to make a commemorative tweet with a special “10” graphic they’d prepared, and I thought, well, ten years is definitely too long to be here.

I have more thoughts about the ways in which “social media” as it currently exists, and Twitter in particular (I quit Facebook about ten years ago, so I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of its current state), is bad for us as individual people and as a society, and why, and what might be better; and maybe at some point I’ll organize those into a post here. I want to work on, and write about, more software projects first, though, so look for more on that soon.

Anyway although time is largely fake, there’s something nice about choosing to mark the new year a few weeks after the solstice — it’s about when we start to actually notice that the days are getting longer. It’s been a few months of it getting darker and colder, and it will stay cold, and even get a little colder yet, for another couple, but we can see it’s starting to get a little lighter, and we know it’ll get warm again, we just have to get through the hard depths of winter.

A metaphor, if you like. Happy new year, wear a mask, don’t go to restaurants or weddings or bars or generally spend time indoors with or near people you don’t live with, get the COVID vaccine as soon as you can, don’t vote for Republicans, tip servers and delivery people extra, do what you can to help other people.

COVID, “Stimulus”, “Relief”, “Survival”, and word choice

People (or more precisely, pundits, politicians, and reporters) keep talking about the CARES act and the current deliberations in Congress as being about “a stimulus” or “stimulus checks”, etc., though some in the left wing of the Democratic party (including Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) have started insisting on calling them “survival checks”, but I see hardly anyone using the term “relief”, and I wonder why that is.

On the one hand, the last time the government spent a lot of money all at once (or in a relatively short time) to try to help as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, was the ARRA under Obama, in response to the Great Recession, and that was constantly discussed as an “economic stimulus” bill, so in that way it makes some sense that the word “stimulus” would be sticky. On the other hand, “stimulus” and “relief” have different objects. You “stimulate” an economy; you give “relief” to a person. And of course you help a person “survive”.

I wonder if some politicians consider “survival” a more “marketable” word, a way to sidestep debates about moral hazard and so forth, because it implies an emergent, temporary crisis. If someone is in the path of an oncoming car, or is about to drown or fall off a roof or has been stung by a bee and needs their Epi-Pen, why, of course anyone would help them survive. If the economy — and it’s an article of faith in modern American politics, an axiom not to be questioned, that The Economy is an independent and unruly force that must be appeased at all costs — needs stimulus, why, we can pick and choose which economists we listen to about what form that stimulus should take, and decide we like the plan where it’s all tax credits and business loans.

To offer relief implies caring about people, and not just whether they’re barely existing, but whether they’re doing well. One needs relief from hardship, from suffering, from deprivation, from worry and stress. That’s an ongoing, maybe indefinite problem, and a problem of human empathy, not the abstract, imaginary machine-god of The Economy simply demanding that the numbers go up.

Right now people don’t need “stimulus”. People don’t have jobs, their bills and rents and mortages are coming due or overdue, and it’s not safe to be around other people. We’ve known since March what the right thing was to do, all along, and the government (which is to say, mainly Republicans, who control most of the veto points; maybe Democrats wouldn’t have done a good job either, but we know that many of them have at least argued for doing better, and we know the Republicans actually didn’t do the right things) has refused to. We should have had ongoing, monthly, non-means-tested, no-strings-attached relief checks to every person in the country, forgiveness of all federal student loan debt, cancellation of rents and mortgages (in the latter case, if necessary, by extending the mortgage terms by the number of months cancelled) and prohibition of eviction and foreclosure, massive federal investment into developing good practices for remote learning, even more massive investment — and worldwide collaboration — into coordinated research efforts for treatments and vaccines, federalizing production of masks and PPE if necessary, not scuppering the plan the USPS already had to deliver masks to everyone, and mobilizing the National Guard to distribute supplies, food, and medicine all over the country, to make sure everyone could safely and comfortably stay home until it was safe.

We didn’t do the right things, and a crisis became an ongoing, enormous catastrophe, and hundreds of thousands of people are needlessly dead—over 320,000 officially, but that’s well understood to be an undercount. If you look at general excess-death figures, and consider how many people died of COVID without getting diagnosed, and how many died of other causes because the health care system was overloaded, or because they didn’t seek enough care soon enough because they were afraid of COVID or because they’d lost their jobs and health coverage due to COVID, it’s hard not to conclude that the true number is probably already over 400,000. People don’t need “stimulus”, and they don’t need bare “survival”, they need relief.