a journal of the plague year, part the second

“…as long as I’m willing to live my own values, focus on the moment and shut the world out, it’s a life I can live with. The question, obviously, is how long that life is sustainable under the circumstances.”

-25 feb 2020


My pandemic began in earnest on March 5, 2020, when the doctor advised me that if I had any kind of infection, I would have to cancel the epidural spinal injection for my shoulder pain scheduled for the 13th. Without any hesitation, I collected my laptop and told my boss I would be working from home for the duration.

I’m still here.

Good thing I stuck with the plan, too, because elective procedures were cancelled on the following Monday the 16th when the Bay Area went full shelter-in-place. I haven’t had a pint in a pub, or an indoor restaurant meal, or a ride on public transit since. We did have a cheeky getaway to Santa Barbara to sit on a hotel room balcony for a couple days and dine alfresco during the September lull, in a drive fraught with care for bathroom stops and drink replenishment, but that’s been the extent of our travel. No Disneyland. No Nashville. No international trip on the books for the foreseeable future. Tahoe, cancelled. Two sets of Yosemite reservations, cancelled. March Madness and the Olympics and the entire minor league and college baseball seasons, cancelled.

My life has become a weird sort of cosplay of the kind of retirement I envisioned being able to have: a remote job, done from home at maybe 60% effort, rising later than I used to and wearing the same comfy AG flannel or work shirt over a slubby T every day and never wearing socks except to leave the house. My 48th year has been measured out in peanut butter & honey sandwiches, pitchers of iced tea and an ever changing assortment of background YouTube video, from mallwave collages to old U-Verse Showcase clips to walking through London to lo-fi big band music under rain effects. I went through a phase of buying every hat I’d ever wanted. I purchased three phones – two of them iPhones – in ten months. I eventually gave in and bought a Woodrow dulcimer and have played it more than I have all other instruments combined for a quarter-century.

It hasn’t been all bad. In fact, in most ways it hasn’t been bad at all. I’ve been spared the hassle of commuting, the indignity of having to schlep into a job that doesn’t seem to know it employs me, doing work that garners precious little attention and zero respect – but when you can walk out at will for a haircut or a Double Gulp or a bagel sandwich and not miss anything, who cares? I have used maybe three days of actual non-holiday PTO since this whole thing began, and as a result I have accumulated enough leave to actually go on vacation when the After is finally here, whatever that looks like.

And to be honest, it looks like Disneyland and London. Places we’ve been plenty, but places we love, and places with something new to explore – whether it’s Avengers Campus California at DCA or Ted Lasso territory in Richmond and the walk from Borough to Shoreditch. As much as it would be exciting to explore something new, there is a certain appeal to reconnecting with the missed known, to the things we’ve most mourned being parted from. I want to walk with my sweetie hand in hand up Main Street USA. I want to sit around a firepit with friends with a bucket of longnecks on ice and a bottle of bourbon. I want to sit upstairs on a train and watch the world passing by out the window. I want to step out of Paddington Station at the end of the Heathrow Express and into a black cab, with the breeze blowing through my linen blazer and my Rancourts comfy on the cobblestones. 

I get why people want this to be over. I want it to be over. But it’s not over, and until people are willing to do what is necessary, it won’t be over. And that’s what America feels like in 2021: a huge group project where only a handful of people are actually doing their part of the assignment. And as long as that’s the case, it feels safer and saner to hang string lights on the office shelves, put Watched Walker or Nemo’s Dreamscapes full-screen on the iMac, pour a pint of local stout or even just plain warm decaf black coffee with a little stevia in it, and focus on the moment and shut out the world.

I guess it turns out that life is sustainable for at least a year, maybe longer, if that’s what it takes.

first impressions

…the truly ironic thing is that the only thing it really needs that it doesn’t have, at this point, is WhatsApp. Just because managing a group chat is so much easier without SMS, and for better or worse, WhatsApp – not Signal, not iMessage, not Facebook Messenger, certainly not any Google product – has become the de factouniversal mobile messaging solution. Cross-platform, international, and it would be nice – but not utterly essential, thanks to the cunning use of Google Voice in a pinch. And then there’s Instagram…but then that’s opening the door to everything else too. The ironic thing is that Facebook owns both WhatsApp and Instagram, has largely left them alone, has managed not to screw them up – but it’s Facebook that has a built-in icon on the 3310, not its superior subsidiaries.

Honestly, this is all driven by the Irish experience. What apps did I legit needin Ireland? Maps, certainly, but that’s fair enough when you’re in a new town every night. WhatsApp to communicate with the traveling party. Instagram for people back in America to see how things were going. And really, that was about it. Almost no place took Apple Pay. There was precious little to be gained by checking email or RSS, it was just as easy to walk out and stick up your arm for a cab as to use any sort of ride-hailing app, and while using Swarm to check in was handy to create a record of where I’d been, it was a little superfluous with the pictures being tagged.

The moral of this story is simple: if you’re not really going anywhere and not socializing, then what is the point in having a device on you that’s just going to steamroll you with all the stuff you’re trying to get away from? 

-oct 25, 2017

Well, they only went and did it. The Nokia 6300 4G patches most of the holes in the 3310 3G. LTE, for more future-proofing three years on. An actual app framework that includes Google Maps and WhatsApp clients. The ability to tether a device or use the phone as a WiFi hotspot. The principal drawbacks are a camera reduced to VGA, not even 2MP, barely suitable for snapping a QR code – and of course the fact that the Highway 101 Axis of Evil is one of the things you’re trying to get away from.

But it’s not utterly without use. There’s a very good Wikipedia app, for one thing, and a more serviceable media player. You might even use it for lo-fi relaxation videos on YouTube, and since it’s based on KaiOS with its roots in Firefox, it kicks the shit out of the proxy browser solution that was largely unchanged in the past dozen years when the 3310 landed. If you were dropped in Ireland with this one – assuming the LTE bands cover Europe, which is doubtful – you might not post on Insta, but you could navigate the streets and the group chat equally well.

But this isn’t a phone for going abroad. This is a phone for use as a wireless hotspot on the train to Santa Barbara – assuming I can make it work reliably. Between the eccentricities of an MVNO and the virtually nonexistent documentation on the device itself, it’s been hard to sustain a connection more than a couple of minutes. There might be some experimentation with that throughout the week, but on the face of it, you might as well order temp service on the eSIM in the iPhone and call it square – or better yet, in my case, maybe just try to work on the iPhone full stop.

Because the iPhone really is my whole life right now, the only device with all the email accounts, all the calendars, all the Slack instances and chat apps and the like. Not a single byte of code on it from Google, Facebook, or Amazon, either, and it’s my device free and clear. And I’m even blogging on it right now. There’s no doubt this would be the travel phone abroad, when abroad is real again.

I guess the Nokia is an artifact of another life, same as ever: the dream phone from the autumn of 2006. Something to call Zachary’s from to order the pizza as Marshawn Lynch gives way to Justin Forsett running over PAC-10 foes, something to carry up to O’Neill’s or down to O’Flaherty’s as the quest for a new pub begins, something to check LiveJournal on in a pinch, something for the era when there were things to do in the wider world besides get groceries and collect takeout.

Maybe I’m just trying to will that world back out of the black hole.


“There is another point when things slipped in a starker way: November 8, 2016, when everyone in America realized they were living in the South. The perversity of realizing that the worst parts of where you’re from — the racism, the galling inequality, the fictionalized victimhood, an illusion of power, the reliance on a bankrupt concept of loyalty disguised as faith, the disgust for learning and fatal aversion to uncomfortable truths, the willingness to protect a deranged sense of identity at the cost of what might literally be the entire world — were all there, everywhere, all along.

-Spencer Hall, 1 Sept 2017


We lost, 57-43. We had the 57, and we lost. Because the Enemy – that amorphous blob of racism and Objectivism and silver-drinking conspiracy thinking that wandered from the Democrats to the Republicans throughout the 50s and 60s and then metastasized to take over the party for the last 25 years – the Enemy has figured out how to win without the most votes. Whether it’s employing the arcane system of the Electoral College or optimizing itself to prevail with acreage rather than voters in the Senate or taking advantage of a media in thrall to the idea that there are two equal sides of identical veracity, volume and significance for every issue – the country is now rigged for a sane and sensible majority to always be at the mercy of lunatics.

Not even winning the White House and control of the Congress is enough to overcome it. All we have now is containment and hoping it might turn on itself and burn out. But make no mistake: this is what the Republican Party is now. This is the Trump QOP. If you stay, you are complicit. There’s no going back from this. To remain now is to say that all of this – the insanity, the denial of majority rule, the use of violence to derail the electoral process – all of this is all right.

It isn’t. And we have to devote every day to making those who believe it pay for the error of their ways.

final impressions

At long last, it’s the one device. I don’t use the laptop for anything personal but blogging. I don’t use the desktop for anything but Zoom and YouTube. This is my preferred device for anything personal, to the point that it is the exclusive home of social media and RSS; personal content doesn’t happen on the work laptop at all any more.

Next step is for my personal line with USMobile to be convertible to an eSIM. Once that happens, this phone can literally go anywhere I go with service. No more buying random SIMs or negotiating APN settings or anything like that. I have a one-handed device with a 5-inch display that can do my music, my podcasts, my streaming, my reading, phone calls, the works. The only reason I don’t call on it for video chat is because usually there are two of us in the frame and it’s hard to lean back on a phone screen.

Which brings up the question: what would I need a personal laptop or iPad for at all at this point? Now that work requires a privileged access device, a personal iPad Air isn’t going to get me anywhere. As long as the old iMac is my permanent telepresence solution, and the AppleTV works (and doesn’t have a higher-res TV to drive), this phone can do everything I need a personal computer for. (And may have to for years, given the rumors. If there’s no new iPhone mini coming, or it goes completely portless, I will ride this little blue thing until it drops out of OS support. New battery in two years and another one in four if that’s what it takes. AppleCare until they stop allowing it. You name it.)

It’s a marker of hope, in a way. Hope for a life where an iPhone 12 mini can be taken around the world as all the computer-camera-soundtrack-wallet you need. Hope that by this time next year, the soles of my Rancourts will be thumping on London cobbles or at least the alleys of Black Spire Outpost. Hope that maybe the world will get a little better somehow. It’s an artifact of the life I wish I could live – the sort of thing that goes with my brown M-65, my flannel and Rancourts, my wool caps and short 10 oz Yeti tumbler as the pieces of my attempt to cosplay as my best self.

the Billy Martin

“What I want; what’s most important to me is that Reuben gets his share of the hotel restored. Now I’m here to give you that chance.”

“Oh, you’re gonna give me a chance? OK. Let me guess. It’s a Billy Martin? I pass.”

Joe Biden stood on the West Front of the Capitol today and offered 74 million Americans a Billy Martin…with a catch. Yes, unity. Yes, coming together. Yes, negotiation and reason. But you’re coming back to us. You’re going back to how things used to be. You have to partake in the rejection of Donald Trump, and all his works and pomps. You have to abjure the Republican mode and manner of the last quarter century. You can be Republican, you can be conservative, but you have to agree not to be dragged around by the dick by Fox News and AM radio and conspiracy theorists.

This is a bet. Joe Biden is wagering that there are enough Republicans willing to deny Trump three times to let him push forward with the appearance of bipartisanship and push the QAnons and the OANNists and the Proud Boys into a corner – and let the resulting civil war rip the Republicans apart from the inside. The bet is that ultimately, enough of the 74 million people who were willing to re-elect Trump will be shorn off to prevent Trumpism from getting the critical mass to regain power.

We’re back to containment. This is the last chance for the GOP to climb off the train before becoming the QOP. It may yet be necessary to blow up the filibuster and resort to adding states and going full scorched earth to prevent the scum who tried to overrun the capital taking a place in American politics. But for the moment, the “not all Republicans” are being offered one chance at a Billy Martin.

flashback, part 112 of n

The recent discovery of “Nemo’s Dreamscapes” on YouTube has been a boon for multiple reasons, not least because it provides an alternative to the same old rain machine for evening wind-down and slumber.  But the scratchy 30s music is evocative on multiple levels. One is 1991, that autumn when I discovered the past – not just as history, but as old yearbooks and student handbooks, as football teams from 1940 and recordings of Glenn Miller. The other is 1995 – when my imagination became an anachronistic mashup of wax-cylinder recordings in Bristol and flying car terminals in Nashville.

I was on the Internet in my apartment and listening to scratchy AM radio driving around, clear channel stations from Cleveland or St Louis or Chicago, hearing traffic conditions on the Dan Ryan or Blues hockey or just the outrage of Browns fans seeing their team shipping off to Baltimore. A history professor asserted that with modern technology and media culture in the 1920s, Elvis Presley would have passed his days as a third-rate Jimmie Rodgers impersonator. And on those rare occasions when I was back in Birmingham and not in the dorms, I was occasionally found in a basement coffeehouse called Celestial Realm, where the music was almost invariably some scratchy gramophone-type big band recording of just the sort that has surfaced 25 years later with rain and fireplace sounds superimposed on it.

It’s a reminder that I was sort of there in the beginning. When 105.9 “The Bear” was attempting to bring modern music to a stagnant radio scene. When a coffeehouse, not a Starbucks, was a thing, and in the last days before Lion & Unicorn went all in on sports cards and collectibles instead of comics and rare Dr Who toys. During the era when Birmingham seemed on the verge of becoming a soccer town, and longneck Red Mountain Red Ale at the Garages after Bulls games was the height of my social aspirations.

Had I stayed in Birmingham, unburdened by the worst relationships of my life, it’s entirely possible I could have stayed and built, and felt like I was part of what I see down there now and honor in the breach with Legion t-shirts and Barons hats and the like. But my Birmingham was circumscribed by the limits imposed on me from the Hilltop, and to get out, I had to leave the whole thing behind. I don’t regret it. I had to escape what I had, because it took more off the table than it ever put on it. But it did rip out some roots that I probably could have used at diverse times in the last decade.

Instead, I’ll settle for falling asleep with vaguely pleasant memories of lemon poppyseed muffins, black bean soup in a bread bowl, raspberry Italian soda and very black coffee.

a journal of the plague year, part the first

It didn’t have to be like this. 300,000 dead and climbing every day. An economy brought to a slow bleed and an uncertain future. Vaccines that will sit in warehouses for want of a distribution structure. Make no mistake: if Pittsburgh had been wiped off the map by a terrorist attack or stray North Korean missile, we would be on a wartime footing that would make September 11 look like a garden party. Instead, we’ve lost the same number of people to a virus, and half the country is still shrugging and saying “it’s just like the flu” and wailing about their freedom.

I don’t make the September 11 comparison idly. I’ve said it before, but had the shoe been on the other foot, I don’t trust that the GOP would have rallied behind Al Gore. I know for a fact that they wouldn’t have rallied behind Barack Obama, and I expect scorched earth from January 3 onward. The plague that’s killing Americans isn’t coronavirus – we had a coronavirus pandemic threat in 2009 and it was controlled; MERS and SARS and other animal-originating respiratory ailments never struck the United States like this, and we didn’t have vaccines for them. The plague that’s killing Americans in 2020 is stupid-worship. Fox News, the Southen Baptist Convention, Facebook, AM talk radio, the Wall Street Journal – a decade of validating the worship of stupidity as the only truly American viewpoint has made it impossible to have cohesive government action.

If everyone had been made to shelter in place for six weeks in March, with masks sent to every household and $5000 in stimulus money for every taxpayer who made less than $100K last year, this could have been mostly behind us by May. But it was always somebody else’s problem right up until it wasn’t, and a cohort of Americans conditioned for years – for decades, really – that they don’t have to care about other people promptly did what they wanted. Which is asinine. It’s like a zombie apocalypse – you can’t reason with the virus, you can’t negotiate with it, you can’t own it online and chortle at those stupid libs. It. Does. Not. Care. It will keep coming until you or it are dead. And useful idiots from Washington DC to Sturgis, SD to Orlando, FL colluded unwittingly to give it what it wanted. And now here we are.

The lesson of the plague year is that you can’t wait for your problems to go away. If you want a better life, if you want a future, you have to take action. And keep taking action. It wasn’t enough to elect Joe Biden, you have to do it in such a way as to frustrate the aims of the ratfuckers who will try to overturn it. And then you have to turn out the vote in Georgia in hopes of preventing the Senate becoming the graveyard. And then, and then, and then. One foot in front of the other, forever, accepting that there will never be a day when the lion lies down with the lamb and we ain’t gonna study war no more. Not in this life.

And that’s the other bit, the hard bit. You have to protect yourself from the virus by creating conditions where it can’t get to you. Masking, hand washing, constant vigilance. So too with that other virus. You have to put the stupid-worship where it can’t get at the vulnerable, where it can’t infect and spread. Until we have a vaccine for it, it must be contained – actively, transitively, and relentlessly, until we have a cure or it dies out for want of hosts. Call it what it is and fight it. Heal it where you can, quarantine it where you can’t, but you can’t give up and you can’t give in.

Because we’re all going to die if we do.

festivus 2020

The grievance of grievances for the last five years chose today to really rear its head for good, spewing pardons around like STDs at a Panama City spring break bar. I don’t know what’s worse: the utter contempt for the rule of law or the complete Republican acquiescence. Or the fact that they will simultaneously court the fanatics forever while demanding that we quit bringing up old stuff.

I don’t understand how we’re meant to get along with this, how we’re supposed to find common ground with people who reject the very notion of commonality. We’ve been in a cold civil war for 50 years that went brushfire-hot in the last 10, and at this point, quite frankly, the democrats – deliberate lower case – have given all the ground they need to give. Otherwise we’re looking at a very real threat of permanent minority rule, with old rural whites maintaining control of government despite the constant failure to collect the most votes.

When the structure of the system gives one side a permanent advantage over the side with more votes, it’s broken. The system is broken. How we survive as a country will depend on whether we can make the needed changes – and overcome those who will fight like Hell to keep their unearned privilege.

the ballad of babe and bimbo

What had happened was, I had a piece of mail from a friend of mine during my first couple months at undergrad, and he had graffiti’d the outside with all kind of random nonsense. “WARNING: TOPOGRAPHICALLY UNSTABLE CONTENTS”, “OPEN IMMEDIATELY unless HAVING SEX”, that kind of stuff. And in that spirit, I did something similar with a piece of correspondence to a former high school classmate at Randolph-Macon Women’s College. And what I got back was not from her, but from a couple of upperclass women who had been amused by it and posted me back a note to tell me so, scribbled on a piece of cardboard from some free publication distribution rack.

I have no idea what I replied with. That’s the downside of the five years before my first email account: I have no record of my sent correspondence. As embarrassing as it might be to read from 2020, I think it might be illuminating to see the thought processes of my brain thirty years ago, if only to marvel at how much has (and has not) changed. Be that as it may, I sent off a reply to them, expecting nothing to come of it.

What I got back was a homemade scrapbook of sorts. One populated with magazine cutouts, biographic details and the like. Babe, so-called, was from St Louis (and somehow an Auburn fan), and Bimbo from the greater NYC area and of Italian extraction. They detailed what they liked and didn’t like (it being 1990, Kevin Costner figured highly in the “like” range), and more to the point, actually invited me to an event at RMWC. Along with the note “We know your real name…and we still wrote to you,” along with an addendum to the party invite “THIS IS NOT A JOKE. Contact your friend for details.”

This was kind of earth-shaking. It was interest. Not even in a sexual or romantic context — just the fact that two women were curious about me was a mind-blowing development in a time and place that had made it abundantly clear I was no one of interest. The vast majority of my undergraduate institution closed the doors as soon as I flunked out of fraternity rush, and I was left on the stoop, all alone save for the girlfriend I had desperately made a play for the moment she evinced an interest herself.

And here we ran into the problem of the bird in the hand. I had absolutely no way to get to Lynchburg, Virginia, to the best of my knowledge. I had never driven anywhere further from Birmingham than…Gadsden? Maybe? This was an eight or nine hour drive. I had ridden to Knoxville countless times, so that would be familiar, but the back half of the route…I might as well be driving to Mars. My car was a seven year old Monte Carlo with 150,000 miles on it already. I had functionally no money, no prospect for lodging, and certainly no way of explaining to my girlfriend, the one person at this school who would speak to me, that I needed to drive 500 miles to meet two women I’d never met and only knew through two pieces of mail.

Call it fear, call it anxiety, call it a catastrophic attraction to the devil you know, but I chickened right out. I must have counter-offered them the spring band festival at my own school, and mentioned my girlfriend, because in December came a care package: liquor filled chocolates, a can of Coors Light, a can coozie,  a candle (“for when you want a romantic interlude with {$NAME}”), a pink disposable razor (purpose unknown?) and some other things, all detailed in a blue book along with grips about Auburn losing to Alabama and their rider requirements for attending Southern Comfort that spring.

And I don’t know what happened after that. I assume nothing. I probably never had the nerve to reply. Four years later, with a reliable Saturn and practice wheeling everywhere from Nashville to Chattanooga to New Orleans to Pensacola, with the added utility of email…maybe? I certainly could have done it by 1997, because I did, but in 1990, the pieces weren’t in place yet to make it feasible even if I’d had the nerve to go for it.

But I think something important was lost when I didn’t have the chutzpah to try it anyway.

second impressions

The Apple Watch series 6 and the iPhone 12 mini are both at the leading edge of current Apple hardware. Unfortunately, getting them to work together was trying. It ended up taking two resets of the watch for Apple Pay to actually start working properly, and there is still some question of whether notifications are all ironed out.

But after a couple of tests, the original case is still on it. As evinced by its spiritual ancestor the Moto X, so much of a phone’s feel is the thickness of the edges – and putting an iPhone 4-style bumper case on a phone of this side effectively inverts the process, making the sides thicker and the middle comparatively thinner. This case will also take the MagSafe charger puck, which might be important, because on three separate occasions now the phone has failed to charge overnight on the Anker wireless charging stand – I think this phone is too short for the charging coil to line up. I either have to place it on the stand higher up and slide it down once it’s charging, or else put something on the bottom shelf to stand it up higher. A sufficient annoyance that if I ever go back into the office, I will almost certainly invest in a MagSafe puck.

The camera, though, is sterling. The screen is amazing. The battery life is no worse than the SE and largely fit for purpose. FaceID is instantaneous when not wearing a mask. I find myself gravitating to this phone for every non-work task other than blogging or video watching. Much like the M-65 feels like the jacket that’s been missing from my back, the iPhone 12 mini feels like the phone that’s been missing from its pocket.

Meanwhile, the watch is getting one particular job done. I have close all three rings every day but one for over a month, and I frequently find myself either walking out at 9 PM to close all three or walking out for coffee in the morning to ensure I don’t have to walk out at night. With the Fitbit and its step count, I had long since given up on hitting even the 8000 step mark. But the watch is forcing me to clock 25 exercise minutes, 500 calories of movement and 12 hours standing every day, and I’m hitting those numbers even when it forces me out on a fifteen minute walk to settle accounts. And then I plug it up to charge. While I haven’t missed a day yet, there are times when I look at my arm at 10 PM and think “shit, I haven’t charged it” but I can get it from 30% to 75% quick enough to go to bed and pick back up in the morning.

So now we have the watch, the compact phone, and the AirPods Pro. The personal Apple environment is complete. Now to see how we live in it.