a journal of the plague year, part the third

“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.”

-27 Feb 2021


800,000 dead and counting. We got the vaccines we needed, and tried to get them into as many arms as possible, but because the Stupid-Worship party immediately made vaccine-refusal its latest shibboleth of fealty, we didn’t get enough shots in arms quick enough, and we got caught by Delta. And even then, it wasn’t enough to change people’s minds, and we got Omicron. And predictably, the same people who have taken a giant shit on science for thirty years are painting viral evolution as a socialist hoax while red-state cities and towns report positivity rates over 25% in daily testing.

We’ve lost half a million people, easily, to the doctrine of “choose your own reality.” If we had responded to this in the way we claim we responded to September 11 – hell, if we had responded to this in the way we did for the first couple of weeks, only for a couple of months instead – we might have avoided this and gotten out with deaths comparable to a very bad flu year. Instead, we have basically the equivalent of metropolitan Nashville wiped out, and the response from actual Nashville is to open everything up and throw off the masks and chant anti-Biden slogans at Kid Rock’s Great Big STD Palace or wherever. For whatever reason, we have evolved a minority population in this country that worships its own obstinance and is willing to die or kill just so that they never have to abide by what someone else said. WJ Cash’s Southern disease has metastasized outside Dixie, and the necks are everywhere now, and there are enough of them to make it worse on everybody – especially if a good chunk of everybody else is willing to indulge them for their own benefit.

I was right to predict scorched earth. I wasn’t expecting actual insurrection, more fool me, but I wasn’t surprised by it, and I’m absolutely not surprised by the ongoing complicity of the GOP. What is shocking, under the circumstances, is that you can’t get the marginal Democrat to go along with his party. Time was, having Robert Byrd in charge of the Senate meant that West Virginians were wiping with federal money. Joe Manchin has the Biden administration by the nuts and could probably get the streets and I-79 paved with actual literal gold for his vote, and instead he wants…nothing. Stasis. Status quo. Never mind that West Virginians seem to want the Build Back Better package, or would at least benefit from it; he’s not even out there angling to get other things in exchange for his vote. It’s just one long “NOOOOO” which is why I am assured, much as the Pope is assured of the existence of the Blessed Mother, that Joe Manchin will change parties the day after the 2022 midterms once the GOP takes control of the Senate. Unless it can be prevented.

And so now it’s just another layer of daily fight. I was hoping that the new normal would be less obtrusive by now than it was after September 11 – sure, you have to put your shoes on the conveyer belt and you get robbed for $50 to check your bags or change your seat, but at least you can still fly. Going up to the city and having the vaccine card scanned to get into the bar was not too much to ask, but no place else seems to be doing it. Boosters are out there free for the taking, but that small yet telling minority of rednecks won’t get them. And so we limp along with the same voluntary half-measures we’ve been stuck with for months and months, and nothing ever gets any better, and it’s as unsafe as it ever was just to pop down to the pub for a nice leisurely pint. 

And this has all been the backdrop for a highly liminal year. I had no idea twelve months ago that we would bury my remaining parent-in-law, or try to move into their house and sell our own, or that the financing would jerk us around for literal months, or that I would spend six months at war with my employer over whether they or I knew more about my area of expertise after 25 years, or that I would spend the last third of the year flinging around resumes like Elizabeth Taylor did wedding invitations and still come up empty-handed. And every time it feels like we might have a handle on the pandemic and a view of a finish line, here comes yet another variant to knock it all off course. We managed as far as Disneyland and Seattle this year, but until there’s a vaccine mandate for air travel I don’t know how I’m going to handle a notional 10 hours to London.

2020 was, for the most part, the longed-for dull moment – a stressful one, fraught with peril, but at least carrying the sense that if you could just endure to the end there would be a path back to the light. 2021 proved the light was an oncoming train. I don’t know what to expect for 2022, but “better days coming” is a prayer, not a realistic appraisal.


Pretty easy to talk this one out after the year we’ve had. The problem now is not what it looks like. It’s not the ravenous anti-vaxxers or the Confederate assholes who stormed the Capitol or the “patriots” rushing Cheesecake Factory to breathe unmasked. These people are all scum and deserve whatever they get – mostly from omicron – but they are not the ones I have the beef with this year.

No. The people who have disappointed me are the press, and not even the gutter press like Fox and its imitators. The press that can only see two equal and opposite sides to everything, deserving of equal consideration. The ones who report on resistance to vaccine mandates without also acknowledging that it’s not 50% of employees refusing a mandated vaccine, it’s not 25%, it’s closer to 1%. The ones who can only see horse race approval ratings because they’re too stupid to address issues and see nuance. The ones who refuse to acknowledge that the 60-vote Senate threshold is an artificial creation from the filibuster and a 21st century anomaly and is fundamentally undemocratic. 

It is not asking too much for every reporter in this country to have a firm grasp on 12th-grade civics and 6th grade math. It should be possible to say that these bullshit opinions only represent about a quarter of the population, and then call out the additional quarter that hems and haws about agreeing with them but is happy to trade on their paranoia and delusion for their own political gain. Every single Republican in public life should have long since been forced to answer two questions: “do you believe Joe Biden was rightfully elected President” and “do you believe the Capitol incursion on January 6 was wrong.” These are not complicated questions, and a “no” on either one should be followed up with a constant and relentless “why not” and their logic and reasoning should be debunked at every turn.

But that would require a smart press.


It is rapidly becoming apparent that most people don’t understand dealing with a pandemic, or the transition from pandemic to endemic illness. The odds of crushing this out the way that SARS or MERS were dealt with in the past are nonexistent now – C19 is with us to stay. The flip side is that with the omicron variant, we are seeing a less deadly form, which is what evolution would predict – after all, an organism that kills its host hasn’t got long to live itself. C19 was not “just like the flu” in its original forms, but it is becoming more like the flu – which is to say, we have a vaccine against it, and we have treatments for it if you catch it, and it is still deadly to those with underlying health issues or compromised immune systems, but it should not be lethal for the majority of the population if properly dealt with.

At least, that’s what could be the case. We would still need the Pfizer treatment to be as cheap and effective as, say, tamiflu. And we would need the vaccines to remain efficacious or quickly updatable, with the expectation that you’ll get the shot every year, same as a flu shot. And some people will get it, but it will be treatable with bed rest and hot liquids and the tamiflu equivalent, and it will not tax the health care system for them to recover at home.

Because all along, that has been the principal limiting factor: does the health care system have the capacity to absorb C19 patients? It has the capacity to absorb flu patients, and if C19 becomes the flu, that capacity is still there. If hospital ICUs and ERs are still filling with patients who require intubation and monoclonal antibodies and extreme care, then it is not the flu yet and we still have a problem that requires extreme measures. At this point, it’s not about wiping out C19, it’s about eliminating the need for these extreme measures.

And right now that is not a difficult proposition. Wash your hands, wear a mask, ESPECIALLY wear a mask if you think you might be coming down with something – which people in Asia and Asian people in the Bay Area have done for decades, seeing people in face masks at the farmer’s market in winter was a totally unremarkable event before 2020 – and either create social distancing indoors or require a mask in environments that are crowded and conducive to spreading colds, like aircraft for instance. I can’t remember a flight I took between 2005 and 2016 that didn’t have a sinus infection concerned in it somewhere after. 

It’s not about making C19 go away, that ship has sailed. Now it’s about lowering the impact on public health, such that fewer people get it badly enough to require hospitalization and that the people with other things – stroke, heart attack, broken leg, transplant, cancer – aren’t driven out of the hospital by the volume of C19 patients. We should probably stop using percentage positive as the metric for remediate measures and start using “percentage of area excess hospital capacity available”. If all the hospitals within 100 miles of you are full up, it’s mandatory masks everywhere and we’re gonna play games in empty arenas until it throttles back down. 

And above all, it’s time to make the vaccine pass a thing. If you have three shots, you can pretty much go anywhere. If you don’t, you’re going to have to take extra measures and there may be limits on where you can sit and what you can do. Probably not forever, possibly not even for very long, but the evidence has proven so far that when you force people to get vaccinated or lose their job, 99% of people will (and let’s face it, there’s no org that’s not better off losing the most recalcitrant 1% of their staff). In a world where you need a measles shot to start college and you need a license and insurance to drive your car and you have to have a blood test to get married, mandating a C19 vaccination for the duration of the pandemic is not outrageous or unreasonable.

Because the objection to the vaccine is in bad faith all the way around. A few years ago, when antivax was mostly the province of Marin hippie parents , conservatives fell about themselves to trumpet the value of the measles shot and demand that students not be able to come to school sick, because it was something to bash their enemies with. Now it’s become a shibboleth of fidelity to stupid-worship, which is all that being a Republican means any more: the worship of stupidity over everything and anything else. It’s long past time for private business to do what governments can’t or won’t: proof of vaccination or you aren’t riding Space Mountain. Proof of vaccination or you can watch the Cowboys and the Bucs on TV. Proof of vaccination or your kids will make you FaceTime instead of bouncing the grandchild on your knee. 

The fundamental flaw of the 21st century is that we gave up on any idea that living in a society requires responsibility and that you can’t do whatever you want, whenever you want. If people wouldn’t sacrifice in the face of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, they certainly won’t give way for a virus when all the cable news assholes encourage them to believe the Facebook bullshit. And the conservative governments  in the UK and elsewhere aren’t calling it fake and throwing open the doors. This is American exceptionalism at its worst, and it’s making me really wish I could get that Irish passport somehow.  

catching up

The updates are not as frequent these days. That is for multiple reasons. One is that for years now, my chosen instrument for blogging has been Red Sweater Software’s MarsEdit, which has been reliable and easy to use for more than a decade – but which is not installed on any of the work computers. Part of the price of moving houses was giving up the office, which means that for the moment I don’t have a desktop computer. The old iMac is the family computer and in a not-very-convenient place for me. Which is fine! It’s for family use, not for me to noodle around on watching YouTube videos of walking through London all day. But it has made blogging a lot less spontaneous.

I thought that might be fixed with an iPad, but the more I think about it, the more I think that I really do need to be waiting for the forthcoming new MacBook, if only because a fixed keyboard and an upright display is better for blogging, video conferencing, and all the things I think I need something bigger than a phone to work with – plus equivalent battery life thanks to Apple Silicon. Then again again, with a possible trip abroad on the cards for spring, I may not want to wait. I don’t know. I’m in that age-old position of knowing the money is about to be tight and wanting to spend like mad on everything and anything, which is how we’ve wound up with a 4K OLED television and hopefully an electric crossover on the way.

We are mostly settled into the new house. The back yard has been very useful just the way I hoped it would: on a foggy morning, I can walk out with my coffee, light the fire pit, and sit in an Adirondack chair warming my toes under foggy 49-degree skies while on the morning Zoom call. It’s also served as the Sunday night pub space – either that or under the overhang of the porch in a zero-G chair watching and listening to the rain, lost in Irish and British podcasts or perhaps reruns of the Eddie Stubbs show. For whatever reason, the actual RTE in Irish has sort of gone by the boards in recent months, possibly because I’m not actually reading as much as I need to on pub night.

Now there’s the matter of whether I want to make an effort to get out there and find a viable space. The new downtown is void of just about anything that would meet my needs; there’s barely any place open past 8 on a Sunday night at all let alone one that approximates a pub. But the bars of my occasional frequency that were one stop away on the light rail are now only a couple miles away by Lyft or cab or Wife, including the one that acted as our spirit grocery at the beginning of the pandemic and which was my first pub pint of the After. I should probably give it a try, although for some reason, I have a mental block about crossing the city line for it now in a way I didn’t have a problem going to the next town the other way before (possibly because there were at least two and sometimes as many as five viable drinking establishments on the one block).

The thing I’m going to struggle with more than anything in this place is that for the last twenty-eight years of my life, some sort of walkability or transit has been the defining characteristic of where I live. Whether the Overcup or Hillsboro Village or the various offerings on 21st at Vanderbilt, or the various things along the Orange Line in Arlington, or on foot or light rail to Castro Street in Mountain View, it’s always been at least broadly feasible to walk out for a meal or a pint or the like – even during the pandemic, I could hit 7-Eleven or the taqueria or the deli or the coffee shop or the liquor store or a haircut without any significant effort. Now, matters are more constrained, and I need to alter my perspective and be willing to explore by riding around, either in a car or on a bike, in a way that I’ve let go by the boards in the last decade.

Which brings us to the other new thing I need that is not on offer: I’ve applied for five different jobs since Labor Day and been rejected or ghosted by all of them. I have two or three more applications in flight at the moment, depending on how you look at it – prompted by the wise words of a Spelman grad that sometimes you have to apply for the same job more than once – but the prospects of relief from my present employment and one more fresh start elsewhere are kind of grim at the moment. I thought I’d be coming into 50 as the proven veteran, the voice of wisdom mentoring the next generation of greater talent, and instead I’m faced with a) the prospect of twelve years of institutional memory and site-specific knowledge going completely to waste because it is not valued where I am, and b) having to hire on and make a fresh start at an age that Silly Con Valley generally thinks is only suitable for venture capital or the compost bin. 

So either I need a new job, or I need to find meaning in a way that is not compromised by the insecurity of not knowing whether I will still have a job this time next month, or year, or week. Which – after two years in which I’ve been laid off, furloughed, ignored and run roughshod over, in ways that only acting a complete and utter ass has successfully pushed back against – is not a consideration I can dismiss out of hand. 

It feels like I’m waiting for the curtain to go up on the next stage of my life. I just don’t know when, or how.

asymmetrical warfare

Roe is going away. That was crystal clear from the nature of the reporting today. The fact that the court makeup has changed is a green light to bring cases that can be used to wipe their ass with stare decisis and precedent is officially meaningless.

That’s the problem. The structural obstacles are to action. One side believes in action, and the other side believes only in thwarting whatever the first side wants. Health care for all, or at least for more? A hundred bills to repeal it. Fair elections? Gerrymandering and foreign interference and actual physical insurrection to derail them. Public health, or at least not to have hundreds of thousands of people die from a virus? There will be war. On vaccines, on masking, on anything that might save people – even if it means disproportionate sickness and death among their own numbers.

Normal service is gone. People who worried about preserving the existing norms and rules miss the point: there is no going backward. You can’t un-ring the bell, you can’t un-break the branch. Damage can be repaired, but not undone.

It’s a lesson I’m struggling to learn myself, as one thing after another gets whittled away. You have to repair or replace, and it’s not always easy, and it absolutely will not go back to the way it was, and it’s possible that the future is just learning to live with ever less and trying to build a cocoon capable of actually keeping the world out.

But the world keeps coming for you. And at some point, you have to accept that your best case scenario is to ameliorate as much of the harm as you can.