Are We There Yet?

I remember a family trip when I was very young, my parents taking my brothers and I to the seaside for a day out. Exasperated at the constant bickering of three small boys in the back seat of a small car, all of us taking turns to shout “are we there yet?”, my dad pulled into a layby on the side of the road. “Yes,” he said, and distributed the sandwiches. We were on a hill, I remember, and watched some cows in a field as we ate. Then we turned around and drove home.

It seems to me that at some point we shall just have to decide that we have arrived at the end of the COVID tunnel. As Senator George Aiken is reputed to have said, some 55 years ago in reference to the Vietnam War, perhaps we should just declare victory and go home.

Sixteen months. 487 days and counting. That’s how long this journey has been, since the pandemic was declared on 13 March 2020.

It’s not actually a long time, at least not in the temporal sense. Our history books are littered with references that suggest a much longer assault – the first voyage of Captain Cook to circumnavigate the globe, 3 years, 1768-1771; World War Two, 6 years, 1939-1945; the Black Death, 7 years, 1346-1353; prohibition, 13 years, 1920-1933; the Hundred Years war, 116 years, 1337-1453; and the residential school system, 169 years, 1828-1997.

We’re not even at the two-year mark of this one and we’re all getting bored with it all. Having to wear masks, not being able to hug or shake hands, sitting in ‘sold-out’ venues that are actually half-full of cordoned off empty seats; BORING!

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it’s summer now, and that makes it worse. We want to go to the beach, to eat ice cream, to sit out under shading trees and listen to live music, to wander and browse through farmers’ markets. When the autumn comes, and then goes, we will probably manage to hide ourselves back inside for another winter.

And the politicians know and understand this. Now is a time to celebrate, they tell us, a time to declare the end of the journey. Are we there yet? Yes!

We believe them, because we want to. Even though we know it’s not true. We can read the news reports as well as any commentator or anchor desk, we see the havoc wreaked by each new variant.

We know that there are still countries in the world where no vaccinations have happened. None. We know that there are countries where vaccination rates are low, or where only a favoured few have received the two doses required to be considered fully immunized.

I check Our World in Data’s vaccination data, sometimes, to see how things are going in those places where I have lived and worked, where friends and family live. Afghanistan, 0.5%; Kosovo, 3.2%; Australia, 8.3%; New Zealand, 10.2%; Colombia, 16%; Sweden, 34.3%; United States, 48.2%; United Kingdom, 51.3%; There are no data for Papua New Guinea.

Here in Canada, we are at 40.5%. And, as of Friday 9 July, that includes me. I got my second shot, Moderna again, and this time did have a bit of a reaction. It was over quickly, though, and I seem to be OK now. They gave me a little sticker that read: “I got my shot. Did you?”

It seems that I shall have to wait another two weeks before the vaccination is actually working. Even then, it doesn’t mean that I won’t catch COVID, only that I probably won’t die from it. Which is comforting. A comfort that only lasts as long as a new variant, I guess, but it’s better than nothing. Am I there yet? Not quite.

It seemed appropriate, then, to sit on my double-dose pinnacle and have a look in both directions, forward and back. What did I do during the pandemic? What are my plans for the future?

To look in the rear-view mirror first. I must confess that I spent most of the pandemic in a cocoon, pulling the blankets over my head and trying to pretend nothing was happening. Not very mature, I concede, but it worked. It helped that I was not alone.

Here on Prince Edward Island, our biggest regret was that the Confederation Bridge had been designed and marketed as “the longest bridge in the world crossing ice covered water.” With the ferries and the airport closed, we would have been much happier with being able to say that we had “pulled up the longest drawbridge in the world.” That way we would not have had to report out-of-province number plates for stopping at shops when they were supposed to drive straight through or write letters to the paper about summer residents sneaking in when they weren’t supposed to be at their cottages.

We were so fortunate here, in so many ways. Over the last sixteen months we have had 208 cases, with no deaths and only one hospitalization. To put that in context, our total resident population is 160,000 people. We had what were considered by some to be draconian rules about mask wearing, indoor and outdoor gatherings, health checks at the border for rotational workers and other ‘essential visitors’, and so forth. These rules worked, no matter what the seventeen protesters with their “Shamdemic” placards tried to say, every Sunday afternoon in front of the War Memorial.

My favourite coffee shop remained open, they moved tables around until they were 2 metres apart and my friends and I wore our masks until we were sitting down with our latte and our pain au chocolat. One of our local entrepreneurs found a way to keep his venue open, albeit only with 50 guests, but by raising ticket prices a tad he was able to put on shows which covered his rent and paid the musicians, so I got to a concert every month or so. Gas prices stayed low until a few weeks ago, so I was able to drive out to the big garden nearly every day without bankrupting myself. And on rainy days, there was always the cocoon.

When I ventured out from the cocoon, I took on a couple of desk-based contracts which kept my consultancy company afloat. I reviewed some articles for a couple of journals. I was appointed to the Council of the College of Licensed Practical Nurses of Prince Edward Island and then, at the first meeting, elected chair! This continued participation in the edges of the academy no doubt contributed to my being appointed Professor Emeritus at the University of Prince Edward Island, an honour which I greatly appreciate and of which I am unquestionably proud.

My home-town soccer club, Leeds United, were promoted to the Premier League, and thanks to international television broadcasters I was able to watch every single one of their 38 league games during the year, plus a couple of cup ties. We finished the season in 9th place, which was not too shabby at all. This year promises even greater glory! MOT.

Of course, I did not really take full advantage of this pause in our lives. I did not learn how to play a musical instrument, nor did I improve my conversational French or any other language. I didn’t even deep clean the house and downsize boxes of ‘stuff’ out to the charity shop or Kijiji.

I did write a novel, though. My first one, Traces, is a simple story. According to the publishers’ blurb:

Traumatized after witnessing a military incursion, a man flees his hometown in a quest to reunite with his family. A modern-day voyageur, he lives off the land, and his wits, as he traverses the prairies and waterways of western Canada. As he tries to evade whoever might be pursuing him, he inadvertently leaves traces of his passing. Traces which will reveal the man he really is. Or will they?

It will be published on 1 September 2021. You can pre-order an e-book version now on Amazon, and both other formats and print copies ought to be available at the end of August. If you read it, please let me know what you think.

And yes, I’m already working on the second!

Which is a nice segue into the future plans part of today’s blog. I have been asked to write a chapter for a forthcoming handbook on Educational Leadership, so that’s a priority, as is working on my second novel. In two weeks, I shall be able to apply for the PEI Pass, a new document you can get which acts as a sort of vaccination passport and means that you don’t have to quarantine for 2 weeks if you travel anywhere.

I’m hoping that flights will start to get back to normal soon, as it would be wonderful to travel to British Columbia and visit with our youngest daughter and her husband, who live just north of Vancouver. I am still not sure when international travel will be normalized again, but hopefully 2022 will see some movement on that front.

The pandemic has also shown us that perhaps we don’t need such a big house, and so we are starting to consider that very trendy word, downsizing. I’ve no idea where we’d put all our stuff, though, if we go through with the idea. What does one do with two thousand (+) books, with walls of paintings and prints, with shelves of sculptures and artefacts? Where would I put George the General, a 2/3 scale replica of one of the terracotta warriors, who I had shipped back from Xi’an? What about the clay pots that we bought nearly 50 years ago, in isolated villages on the Sepik River? How does one differentiate between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’, and put comparative values on each? Is that possible?

With regard to the question of downsizing and relocating, then, are we there yet? No, not at all.

Friends help friends keep away from the sewer

In two weeks, we shall celebrate Canada Day, which marks 154 years since the passage of the British North America Act. On July 1, 1867, the Dominion of Canada was officially established as a self-governing entity within the British Empire. There were three provinces which came together to form the Dominion – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and what was known as the Province of Canada, which consisted of Canada West (former Upper Canada, current day Ontario) and Canada East (former Lower Canada, current day Quebec).

Other provinces joined later – Manitoba and the Northwest Territories (NWT) were created in 1870, when Rupert’s Land was purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company for three hundred thousand pounds, or $1.5 million. Not wanting to be left on the margins, British Columbia joined in 1871, and PEI in 1873. Both Alberta and Saskatchewan were formed in 1905, carved out of the NWT by federal government decree. Newfoundland and Labrador did not join the confederation of Canada until 1949, and Nunavut was created in 1999.

So really, Canada as we know it today has only existed since 1 April 1999 – some twenty-two years. Still, any excuse for a party, eh?

Although in truth, it is a hard time to be Canadian, and there are a growing number of people who are suggesting that we don’t celebrate Canada Day this year.

Normally, we would describe the stereotypical Canuck as polite, quiet, reserved, and generally nice. We are passionate about our local community and our province. Nearly all of us ice skate or play hockey. Even if we can’t play, we watch, and whichever team we support, we all boo Toronto. We drink coffee from a certain store because it happened to be once owned by a hockey player. We are proud that basketball and 5 pin bowling were both invented by Canadians (James Naismith, 1891, and T. E. Ryan, 1909, respectively), as were zippers, snow blowers, lawn sprinklers, instant mashed potatoes, peanut butter, insulin, cardiac pacemakers, canola, acetylene, the snowmobile, and many more1.

We consider ourselves more peaceable than our neighbours to the south, the loud and violent Americans. We consider ourselves more egalitarian than their colonial forebears, be they from the United Kingdom or France. We consider ourselves a welcoming country, open to refugees and economic migrants alike. We are proud that Lester B. Pearson, a former Prime Minister, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the United Nations Emergency Force to resolve the Suez Canal Crisis. Most of us are proud that another prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, introduced the Official Languages Act in 1979 to ensure that federal government services would be provided in both official languages, wherever population size warranted it.

Most of us are proud that peacekeeping is a celebrated part of what Canada is as a nation, and who Canadians are as a people, with over 125,000 Canadian military personnel serving in UN peacekeeping missions since 1947. We pride ourselves on being a modern, multicultural, secular society.

We don’t see ourselves as bigoted, racist, misogynistic, intolerant, homophobic or angry.

And yet, and yet.

Two weeks ago, the remains of 215 children were found buried in the grounds of what used to be the Kamloops Indian Residential School. These were ‘undocumented deaths’ – no known paper trail describes who they are, when they died, or how they died. They simply were taken away from their parents and sent to the school, and never went home.

This event was shocking in the numbers involved, but sadly not in the fact that it happened. The terror of the residential schools has been an open secret in First Nations communities for years, of families torn apart, of siblings and cousins never seen again. Six years ago, in 2015, “in order to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation”, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made 94 Calls to Action.

The TRC noted that large numbers of Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools never returned to their home communities. Some children ran away, and others died at the schools. The Missing Children Project documents the deaths and the burial places of children who died while attending the schools. To date, more than 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school have been identified2. The fear is that there are many more. The discovery at Kamloops has prompted many First Nations to initiate searches of the grounds of the residential schools that existed in their communities. Who knows what the ground penetrating radar will find?

Hopefully, the horror of Kamloops has also prompted many Canadians to realize that so far there has been very little progress on any of the TRC Calls to Action. There has been a lot of talk, but according to a CBC report, as of last week eight of the Calls had been implemented.3

Eight.

Last week the Federal Government produced a ‘National Action Plan’ in response to the findings and numerous recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The actual report of the MMIWG Inquiry was released two years ago, on June 3, 2019, and caused a stir because it described the disproportionate level of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada as a “genocide.”

I think that Mariah Charleson, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council vice-president, described it best in her interview with a reporter from the Toronto Star4. Noting that it took two years for the federal government to come up with 23 short-term priorities and seven goals, her response was: “It fell far short of what we were expecting.”

She did not state the obvious – if an action plan has no deliverables, no landmarks, no immediate goals, no long-term goals, no timelines, and no budget, then can it actually be called a plan? No doubt there will be another committee struck to develop activities to address the priorities and goals. Meanwhile, the murders and the disappearances continue, with rationales and excuses justifying the lack of any appropriate consequences.

The National Action Plan was released a day before the one-year anniversary of Chantel Moore’s death – the 26-year-old Indigenous woman was fatally shot outside her New Brunswick apartment during a wellness check by an Edmundston police officer. No charges were laid against the involved officer, apparently because Ms. Moore had been drinking and approached him holding a small steak knife. The officer found himself trapped on a balcony and felt justified in shooting her to defend himself. He fired four times.

Earlier this week, a man in Thunder Bay, Ontario, was sentenced to eight years in prison for manslaughter. In 2017 he was 18 years old. He had been out drinking all day, and as he and friends were driving around that evening, he leaned out of the car window and threw a trailer hitch at two women, sisters, who were walking in their residential neighbourhood. “I got one”, he yelled. Barbara Kentner, of the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway First Nation, died of her injuries following what the judge called a misogynist, thrill-seeking and callous attack. Observing that eggs, bricks, garbage and bottles are frequently thrown at Indigenous people in the northern Ontario city, the judge said the man did not know this, he attacked her solely because she was female.

It is not just Indigenous people who are suffering. This past weekend, a family went out for an evening stroll in London, Ontario. It’s a small city, fewer than half a million people live there, and it is known for the parks and green space that extend along the banks of the Thames River. As one might expect, it is a predominantly Anglo community, with 75% of the population reporting they speak only English at home. But there is a growing population of new immigrants to Canada, with over 20% of the population claiming a language other than English or French as a mother tongue5. The family out for a walk last Sunday evening, who had lived in London for 14 years, were originally from Pakistan. And they were Muslim.

As they waited at an intersection for the ‘green man’ to indicate that they could cross safely, a man in a pick-up truck drove up onto the curb, at high speed, and ran them down. A 15-year-old girl, Yumna, her parents, Salmon and Mahida Afzaal, and her grandmother were all killed. Her nine-year-old brother Fayez survived, albeit with serious injuries. The man, who I shall not name, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder, and the police are considering whether to lay terrorism charges.

This is not the only case of Islamophobia we have witnessed in Canada recently, In January 2017, six men were killed, and 19 others seriously injured, in a shooting at mosque in Quebec. Last year, a volunteer caretaker at a mosque on Toronto was stabbed to death by a man whose social media posts included the sharing of content from a site affiliated with a satanic neo-Nazi group. Even here on Prince Edward Island we have witnessed disturbing acts of intimidation and vandalism – a pig’s head was nailed to a post at the mosque, the truck of a contractor working at the site was set on fire, and so on. Small acts compared with the others, but no less disturbing.

It is hard to speculate why there is so much hate around. The perpetrators of these crimes tend to have one thing in common – they are usually young white males. They are often described as ‘normal’ men, who play hockey and drink coffee, who love pets. They are spoken of as being polite, quiet, reserved, and generally nice. Except when they are drinking, or sitting at a computer accessing racist, misogynistic, homophobic and politically inflammatory websites, I guess.

I recognize that we can do very little to influence these events. The Internet is like the open sewers you see in some cities, running parallel to the street and sluicing away a lot of garbage. There is usually a concrete berm which tries to control the direction of the flow, but sometimes the sewer is full and stuff splashes over the edges onto the street. Sometimes you see people down at the edge of the berm, picking through to see if anything interesting has washed up. You feel sorry for them, but you can’t, and don’t, do anything about it.

It seems to me that this is part of the problem. In doing nothing, we are doing something. The fact that we take no action is an action in itself. As those of us working in the north used to joke, in many cases the policy of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development was to not have a policy. Many of us follow that same path. We are not calling out to those people who are picking through the edges of the Internet sewer, telling them about the dangers they are facing, the dangers of contamination from the filth they are handling, the dangers of falling in and being swept away by the flow.

When we receive a forwarded e-mail or tweet that is bigoted, racist, misogynistic, intolerant, homophobic or angry, we simply delete it. We might even shake our heads in dismay or disgust. But we don’t contact the sender, the friend or relative or co-worker who thought we might find it funny. We don’t want to upset anyone, or to be seen as overly sensitive, or be accused on political correctness, so we don’t say, “stop sending me this kind of thing”. And by not calling them out, we inadvertently help to perpetuate the problem.

I’ve decided that I am going to celebrate Canada Day this year. If our ever-changing COVID19 protocols allow people to get together, I’m going to go downtown and mingle with the other citizens of my city. If we are corralled in an online environment, I’ll go there instead, at least for a short time. In either space I shall take special care to say hello to everyone, especially those who don’t look like me. It might not mean a lot in the greater scheme of things, but it will to me.

1 Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). Top 100 Inventions Made in Canada. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/made-in-canada-1991456

2 http://www.trc.ca/events-and-projects/missing-children-project.html

3 https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/let-s-get-on-with-it-indigenous-advocates-demand-completion-of-trc-calls-to-action-1.5456200

4 https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/06/08/leaders-say-mmiwg-national-action-plan-falls-short.html

5 https://www.citypopulation.de/en/canada/ontario/admin/_/3539036__london/

Happy Easter

Although the spring equinox has come and gone, supposedly signalling the end of winter, you would not know it from the weather outside. We are in the last stages of an ice storm, a night of freezing rain and high winds having left roads icy and scattered full of downed branches. It is not a good day to be in the garden, but it is a good day to write a blog.

There was a full moon a week ago, one of those ‘super moons’ that looks brighter and larger than usual because it coincides with the perigee, when the orbit of the moon is closest to earth. These moons tend to have names; this was the Worm Moon, so called because the light is supposed to bring the earthworms to the surface of the newly unfrozen earth. The tides were extra strong that day, over 18 inches higher than normal, and that helped float the super-tanker which had managed to get itself stuck in the Suez Canal.

Here on the Island, we noticed the higher tides in the bay at Ellen’s Creek, but they weren’t strong enough to shift the old shopping cart that’s been stuck in the mud there for the past few months. It’s really only visible at low tide, sitting on a sandbank about three metres from the causeway. It must have been a very strong or cranky person who threw it there, unless (more likely) it was wheeled out one night during a winter storm, when the ice was strong enough to support its weight but there was nobody around to watch.

Today is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern spring equinox, and therefore it is Easter Day. As you unwrap your chocolate eggs or prepare the leg of lamb for dinner tonight, please say a word of thanks to the Council of Nicaea, a group of men who met, in 325 A.D., in a small city near present-day Istanbul and established the rule which sets the date for Easter, much to the chagrin of those who can’t understand why their holiday weekend keeps moving, “why can’t they just fix a date like they do with all the others?”. I’m not sure who “they” are, no doubt the same people who will hopefully decide that there will be no more springing forward and falling back with the clocks, just a simple year-round time.

Today also marks the end of Lent, that period of 40 days (plus Sundays) that precedes Easter and commemorates the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness, getting tempted. It is traditional to give something up for Lent, although nowadays a lot of people try to add something to their lives instead. Rather that not eating French fries, or whatever, they try to do positive acts. One friend with whom I spoke yesterday has spent the past six weeks writing letters, one a day, to friends and family around the world. She did observe that she hasn’t received any letters back though, just e-mails saying thank you for writing! I gave up alcohol and red meat and, despite the nay-sayers who said this would be an impossible task for me, I kept my pledge. I must say that I am very much looking forward to the leg of lamb we’re having for dinner tonight, and to the red wine which will accompany it. I’ve got a couple of bottles of a nice cabernet franc that to my palate is a perfect match for lamb.

This morning when we were coming back from church the tide was going out, the shopping cart visible but ignored by the black ducks and ring billed gulls that bobbed in the channels. We don’t go to church a lot these days, what with all the limits on social gatherings, but truth to tell I didn’t really go that often even when I didn’t have the pandemic to blame. I suppose I’m part of that collective called C and E Christians, a pun on ‘Church of England’ (or Anglican) but really meaning ‘Christmas and Easter’, as those are the two big feast days.

For what it’s worth, today is the bigger of the two festivals, for although Christmas (Christ’s Mass) celebrates the birth of Jesus, Easter celebrates the resurrection – which is nowhere near as common an event. According to the Venerable Bede, writing 1318 years ago, the day is named in honour of Eostre, sometimes known as Ostara, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility.

Easter has long been a time of celebration, of bright new clothes and decorated eggs. The bright new clothes reflect the bright new growth one hopes to see in the garden while the decorated eggs, according to Germanic tradition, are from a time when Eostre was out for a walk and found a wounded bird. Worried that it could not fly, she turned it into a hare, but because she was in a bit of a rush, she didn’t finish the job properly. The next spring, the hare found that instead of having live young, it was laying eggs. This reminded it that it had been a bird. So, it decorated a couple of eggs and left them as a gift for the goddess, to say thank you for saving its life. One does wonder why a goddess couldn’t have simply fixed the wing.

In the 1700s there was a large immigration of settlers from Germany to the United States, mainly into Pennsylvania, some of whom then moved north to Canada in the 1780s. With them they brought their stories, including the ideas of decorated eggs and of Osterhase, the Easter Hare. Children would build ‘nests’ of sticks, and on Easter morning they would find decorated eggs lying in those nests. Over the next century or so the decorated eggs evolved into chocolate ones, and Osterhase morphed into the Easter Bunny, and with the help of early 20th century manufacturing and marketing skills, chocolate eggs became synonymous with Easter. It is perhaps no accident that Hershey’s is headquartered in Pennsylvania.

If nothing else, then, Easter should remind us to recognize that there were old ceremonies that the new religions commandeered. Colonization of the soul, as our First Nations friends have long tried to teach us, has a history of following close on from colonization of the land. But that’s a topic for another blog.

It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me

I came across this traditional folk song the other day, it popped up when I was searching the internet for something completely different. No, not the Spanish Inquisition, which actually should have been expected as people took great pleasure in denouncing their neighbours. More on that later. The version of the folk song I found was the one made famous by The Dubliners, so I wasted a bit of time listening to it, as one does, procrastination being the number one outcome from web-surfing, and it caused me to pause and take stock.

It was a year ago today that I ran away from my holiday, not on a Yankee clipper ship bound for California but in my car heading to Heathrow, and thence post haste to Charlottetown. I had been in Liverpool for four days, checking out some interesting ‘modern art’ at the Tate, the river and the docks, the ruins of a church bombed during the Blitz, the duelling cathedrals.

I went on the Mystery Tour that took a bus load of tourists to the gates of the orphanage called Strawberry Fields, and past the Cavern Club, where I had my photograph taken next to the bronze statue of John Lennon that stands across the street from those hallowed doors. On Penny Lane we saw the barber’s shop on the corner, and even the shelter in the middle of the roundabout, although there was no pretty nurse selling poppies. Anyone would think the Beatles drew upon the local context for their music.

On the Tuesday, Liverpool played at home against Athletico Madrid, and that evening the hotel was full of very happy Spaniards whose team had won the game. When I got back from dinner, there was a bottle of hand sanitizer on a small table by the lifts (elevators), together with a bowl of apples, but that was the extent of the anti-virus activities.

I knew from the newspapers and television news shows, which being a news junkie I devour even on holiday, that there were 25,000 cases in Italy, which had seen 600 deaths, and hospitals were starting to implode. Indeed, case counts were rising all over Europe. The number of positive cases in Spain had reached 6000 and was doubling every day (it is now at 3.1 million), yet soccer fans were criss-crossing the continent, and in the lobby, I had watched as Spanish and Liverpudlian fans linked arms and sang alcohol-fueled songs which made no sense in either language.

When I spoke to the guide on the tour bus, however, he thought all the doom and gloom stories were just to sell newspapers. Another person on the tour, who had been listening to our conversation, contributed that he thought this was all just a European phenomenon, something which could probably be blamed on the poor sanitation habits of continentals. There were murmurs of agreement.

Not being convinced, and as I mentioned in my blog at the time, somewhat discombobulated by the relentless media coverage, I called Air Canada and got a seat on the first available flight. I left the city, driving past Prince’s Landing where the ferry leaves to ’cross the Mersey, another famous song, and down Skelhorne Street past Lime Street Station. I didn’t see Maggie Mae, I’m afraid, nor any crazy coons running around in their underpants. It was early, though.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you obviously never listened to the Let it Be album, or to Lime Street Blues on the B side of Procol Harem’s Whiter Shade of Pale!

Anyway, I got back to Prince Edward Island on the Saturday, isolated myself for 14 days as requested, and have only been off the island twice since then. During the summer the case numbers in eastern Canada were very low, and an Atlantic Bubble was established. This permitted people to move unhindered between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI, and I managed to get to both of our neighbouring provinces, albeit only for a couple of days.

Then the numbers in New Brunswick spiked, and the bubble burst. Since then, we’ve been hunkered down throughout the winter, where the biggest news has been the reports of people who ‘came from away’ and didn’t self-isolate properly, or who had gatherings of more than 10 people, or who weren’t wearing face masks when they should be. The habits of six hundred years ago, when people took great pleasure in denouncing their neighbours to the Spanish Inquisition, die hard. So far, the city hasn’t acted on my suggestion that in addition to the fines levied, they also publish the names and photographs of those involved, and erect stocks in the main square downtown for multiple offenders, but I’m sure they’ll come around.

It’s not just people who are breaking the rules, though. The other day someone coming over from New Brunswick was surprised to see a fox going the other way – just trotting along across the bridge! I hope he filled in the Public Health Form first. This is one of the good things emerging from the past year. The relative lack of traffic has helped re-introduce people to the idea that this is shared world. In Barcelona, the city reported that in June 2020 there was an increase of 74% in the number of butterflies, compared to June 2019. Yes, they have someone who counts them. The increase was put down to COVID, because months of lockdown restricted the number of maintenance crews cutting grass and spraying for weeds, aided and abetted by a wetter than normal spring, and less smog as fewer people were commuting to work. It is good to learn that both the pandemic and climate change can have a positive impact in some spheres.

Those of us in the northern latitudes are getting ready for the official end of winter, the Spring Equinox, which takes place on 20 March. It has just been announced that the Atlantic premiers are meeting next week, to discuss the re-opening of the Atlantic bubble and the potential for local tourism to start up again. Our clocks ‘spring forward’ on Saturday night. These are all signs that the summer is coming, and with it the chance to get back into the garden. For those of you in the southern hemisphere who are getting ready for autumn, enjoy!

As we mark the official one year anniversary of the pandemic, I think its time to try to refocus on the positives. I hope that people continue to buy local, even when the big superstores get their supply lines straightened out. I hope that society invests time and money into resolving the staffing crisis at long-term residential care homes. I hope that musicians will be able to play live gigs again, and artists to have gallery openings. I hope some people will continue to work from home, and the number of daily commutes remains lower than it was a year ago. I hope that governments put as many resources into fighting climate change as they did into developing vaccines. I hope that Leeds United finish in the top six of the Premier League.

Ah well, it’s good to have one that you know won’t happen.

The World is Starting to Breathe Again

That big ppfffffftt you heard on Wednesday was the world starting to breathe again, as the inauguration of President Biden took place without riotous QAnon crazies, outrageous Twitter messages, or an Anwar Sadat style assassination. All of which were very much on the cards and, in truth, would have been met with a general “thought that might happen” sort of vibe. Please give thanks, to whomever or whatever you thank for such things, that the general sense was that the ceremonies were traditional, almost boring.

That the status quo was being shaken was evident in two special ways – the inauguration of Vice President Harris, and the poem written and recited by Amanda Gorman. However, these were not flouted or exaggerated, at least not by the Canadian media I was watching, but rather simply reported. The commentary included statements like “oh by the way, not only is she the first African American in the post, she’s also the first ‘she’.” As if that wasn’t one of the most amazing things, especially given the age of the President. And then, the kicker that summed up the past four years:

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

I hope that schools across America, and indeed around the world, have added “The hill we climb” to their curriculum. Those of us in education have spent many years talking about cross-curricula learning – well, a critical reading of that poem would give the class a platform to discuss history, geography, politics, English language, social studies, civics, science … one could build a whole integrated curriculum unit from that poem alone.

Now that sanity has prevailed, and news will once again be distributed though policy documents and regular briefings rather than manic rantings on social media, we can give our heads a long and collective shake and watch the new President move on to some of the other things which need to concern his administration. There are many of those to keep him busy! But of course, action on none of these issues will be successful unless he can somehow bridge the partisan divides which exist in American politics. I fear that the shadow of the Past President is going to be hard and dark for a long time to come.

Indeed, it’s hard to keep writing this blog without dipping back into the well of outrage which has been accumulated over the past four years. I have an urgent desire to start sentences with “Do you remember when he …”. I am going to try to resist that urge, and instead look forward. Where do we go from here?

Personally, I’m looking forward to visiting America again. I’ve had my own private boycott going for the past four years, one exacerbated but not caused by COVID. I’m sure nobody noticed but it made me feel better. I’ve always tried to avoid authoritarian states and after the last inauguration I determined that I could not, in good conscience, travel to a country under such leadership. I’ve avoided conferences, holidays, and even flights requiring stop-overs, and as a result have missed seeing many friends and colleagues over the past while. I’m hopeful that once our current travel restrictions ease, and the longest unmilitarized border in the world is reopened, then ‘normal relations’ will resume. There are lots of great places I’d like to visit.

Until then, there are six issues on which I hope to see new leadership from the United States. Although conceptually clear, these issues are experientially incoherent. Each one has so many sub-sets of challenge, so many degrees of risk, so opaque a policy lens, that it is almost impossible to determine what might be prioritized. But we must try.

Actually, I’d like to set this as a task for you, dear readers of this blog. Imagine for a moment that you have been hired as an advisor for the new administration in Washington. You are presented with a list of six pressing issues, and asked: do you agree with these, or would you substitute one (or more) for something else? If so, what changes would you make? Of the six issues that remain, how would you prioritize them, in terms of urgency and immediacy of action?

The six issues I am putting before you have, of necessity, been simplified. ‘Climate change’, for example, has multiple layers of policy implication, from agricultural productivity to pipelines, from weather events to windfarms. I recognize that I have collapsed all these sub-sets into these six topics which are, in alphabetical order:

  • Climate change.
  • COVID19 pandemic.
  • Economic, social, and racial inequality.
  • Global human migrations.
  • Militarization of space.
  • Political and trade relationships with other nations.

Although I am presenting these as matters of interest to the incoming US government, they are in truth areas of interest to all of us. Every political jurisdiction in the world, from the smallest hamlet to the largest country, is being impacted by these issues, often in very direct and specific ways. I believe that as individuals we have to be part of the solution as well as part of the problem and so, if you are willing to share your thoughts on these things, I would love to hear them.

As a collective the readership of this blog is global in nature, something which truly amazes and humbles me. As such, your ideas and perspectives will ensure that I broaden my own lens to something beyond a Canadian view. You can contribute via the Comments feature on the blog, but beware that this will place your ideas in the full public domain. Or you can e-mail me directly, and if I decide to share anything you write with others (for example, by a summary in a future blog) then I shall do so in an anonymised way that protects your privacy. For those that don’t know it, or have forgotten it which is why I didn’t get a Christmas card, my e-mail address is jtg045@gmail.com

There are a few reasons why I am interested in how you view these matters. First, my general default position is one of intellectual magpie, so I like to collect shiny things like ideas. You never know when they might come in useful! Second, I’ve been asked to write a book chapter that focuses on educational leadership in a time of global uncertainty, and all these matters impact on that theme, so <see first point>. Third, I need provocative things to talk about at my irregular coffee mornings, when I and a couple of friends get together to discuss the issues of the day <again, see first point>.

I apologise to those of you under severe lockdown restrictions who’ve forgotten what it’s like to visit with others, but here on the Island we still have cafes open and we are allowed to sit inside with small groups of friends. We’re probably allowed to sit outside as well, but right now it’s minus fifteen Celsius, so nobody does. That’s the downside of winter. But that’s another blog.

300 Days

I had intended to start this first blog of the new year with something like: “Well, we made it. Hello 2021. Everything’s going to be different this year.”

As the adage says, “Be careful what you wish for.”

I never thought that I would invoke my inner Dolly Parton, but at times like these, her latest song has some prescient lyrics.

Even though we’re walkin’ through the valley of death
Scared and wonderin’ what happens next
Uncertainty, division, anger and the rest
I still believe

Questions of what and why and when
What is it, why it happened or when will it end
These are strange and crazy times that we’re living in
But I still believe

I believe to my very core
We’ll walk again in the sunshine by the seashore
That we’ll dance and we’ll sing and be happy again
Don’t know how or when but we will again, you’ll see
I still believe (I believe)

If you missed the Holly Dolly Christmas Special on TV, then check out the song on YouTube https://youtu.be/s9j5cxP1GZQ

Or simply Google “dolly parton I still believe lyrics”. It really is a positive way to start the year.

Which is much needed. After the warmest (and greenest) Christmas since records have been kept on the Island, the New Year arrived with a dump of 27 centimetres of snow. I thought that perhaps, at last, a modicum of normalcy was returning to the world. Although that’s a difficult claim to make, as five days later I saw a Northern Cardinal in my backyard. This is quite a rare bird here, a marginal visitor at best, and was the first one I’ve ever seen on the Island. So perhaps, I thought, we’re not quite ‘normal’ yet.

Then I checked what was happening in the rest of the world. Mass arrests in Hong Kong. The United Kingdom moving to a new level of COVID emergency. The President of Brazil saying the vaccine might turn people into crocodiles. Nope, everything’s still pretty 2020.

Personally, I think Boris Johnson did quite a smart thing, having the COVID emergency tiers start at 1 and go up. It gives him all sorts of latitude. In terms of threat, most alerts go from three (low), to two (medium), to one (high). So, what happens when you reach one? The same for the colour system. Canadian provinces tend to go green, yellow, orange, and then red, in levels of increasing severity. What does one do after red? Boris, however, can simply add another level each time things go sideways. Actually, the other day quite a funny cartoon to that effect made the rounds.

Still, I thought, at least things are going to transition to ‘more or less normal’ in the US, as that country moves from one president to another. Then Wednesday happened. It’s Dolly time again.

In fact, I can’t even articulate what I think about what took place in Washington. It’s too raw right now. Perhaps in a future blog. Instead, I would like to share an anniversary.

Today, 8 January 2021, marks the 300th consecutive day I have remained in the same time zone.

This has not happened for 25 years, and not just because of holidays! In every year that I was a university professor there were conferences and meetings, research trips and seminars, events which kept me on the road two or three (or more) times a year. In my quest to become full professor I made sure that my work was widely disseminated – I tried to present a paper or be part of a symposium in at least one local, national, and international conference a year. In addition, there was my educational development work, which gave me the opportunity to work around the world, in many wonderful countries such as Kosovo, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Sweden. The travel became strangely addictive, and I got a great sense of enjoyment out of knowing which were the best airline lounges. When I learned of the Air Canada Million Mile program, there was a tangible reward in sight, and it was with glee that I unpacked my model aeroplane once it arrived. Appropriately it’s a model of a Boeing Dreamliner – appropriate because now the only place I’m flying is in my dreams. C’est la vie.

But if I could, where would I go? I have made my bucket list and prioritized the top 5 places I’d like to visit as soon as travel becomes feasible again. I’ve ignored issues like cost, time, and the convenience to other people, these are my dreams!

First, the west coast, and a chance to see our youngest daughter’s new house, on the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver. That part of the country is ironically named, as it has some of the heaviest precipitation in the country and supports a temperate rain forest. At least they don’t have to shovel it. From there one can drive to Inuvik, on the shore of the Beaufort Sea, a 3800 kilometers (2300 miles) odyssey that encompasses northern British Columbia, the Yukon, and the Dempster Highway. According to Google Maps it is a 51-hour drive, so allowing for sightseeing and other stops that would be a 10- or 12-day trip, with four or five hours of driving each day. I’ve never been to the Yukon, or to that side of the Arctic, so that would be fun. Of course, it’s 3800 klicks back as well, but that would be faster as it’s all down the map.

Second, I want (and need) to get back to the UK, to see family and friends and to resume the trip which was rudely interrupted last March. I’ve never been up to the very north of Scotland and would love to see that part of the country. A quick side-trip into Europe would be good as well, to visit friends in France. Luckily, Brexit has no impact on my travel into the European Union.

Third, Australia beckons me back. I’ve never been to Tasmania and would like to complete my ‘set’ of states. There are many friends to visit on the north and eastern coasts, and a trip across the Top End from Cairns to Broome has always been something I’ve wanted to do.

In fact, I would probably try to go the other way, arriving first in Perth and then going from Broome to Cairns, and then down the coast to Tasmania. That would leave me in the correct geographical location to start trip 4, which would involve a cruise across the Pacific to the west coast of Canada or the US. It would be magnificent to drop in at all the islands of Micronesia and Polynesia, visited by Captain James Cook (and Paul Gauguin) so many years ago. Plus, I’ve never been on a cruise.

Finally, closer to home and not requiring an aeroplane to facilitate, another road trip is the one which goes from Red Bay, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence river, all the way round Labrador to Tadoussac, near Montreal. It’s almost 2400 kilometers (1500 miles), so about a two-week drive. Plus of course the three days it would take to get to Red Bay, which requires a long drive up the northern peninsular of Newfoundland and then a ferry across the Strait of Belle Isle from St. Barbe to Blanc Sablon. That narrow channel is also known as ‘ice-berg alley’, so one’s timing has to be pretty careful! And the two days to drive back from Montreal. So about three weeks in all, and not an airport lounge in sight.

After that … well, I’d love to visit with friends from Umeå to Ottawa, Boston to Bretagne, Massachusetts to Medellín, New York to New Zealand, and places in between. That’s the problem of staying in the same time zone for 300 days – it gives you too much time to dwell on the wider world outside. Still, that’s where the Dreamliner comes in useful.

Of course, I’d better hope I can achieve these trips quickly. I was thinking the other day of the Mayan calendar, and of Michael Coe, who wrote that “there is a suggestion … that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the 13th [bʼakʼtun]. Thus … our present universe [would] be annihilated … when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion” (1966, p. 149). The date of this ‘completion’ was set as 21 December 2012, and many people were happy when that date came and went without any major catastrophe. But what if he was a bit dyslexic, and simply got his numbers inverted? Perhaps he really meant 12 December 2021.

Just saying.

You read it here first!

—–

Coe, M. D. (1966). The Maya. Ancient peoples and places series, no. 52 (1st ed.). London: Thames and Hudson.

(Re)defining Normal

So here we are, ten days until Christmas, a year since the Coronavirus was first reported, and nine months since the pandemic was declared. I think we’re all getting tired of it. I know I am.

I’m not the only one who is finding it hard to achieve anything these days. Russell Wangersky is a Newfoundland writer, who is also one of my favourite newspaper columnists. He recently described how his reactions to adversity are changing.

An axe sticks in the log he’s trying to split, he stops splitting wood; the glue won’t hold on a repair, it takes three times as long to fix the problem; a shed roof leaks but he can’t replace the material because the pandemic has interrupted the supply chain, and none is available.

His response to all this? He gives up and goes for a walk in the woods, wishing things were back to normal. Those three little things have thrown him. Three little things which, in the past, he would no doubt have resolved with ease. Three little things which, in the wider scheme of things, are nothing more than irritations and inconveniences. And yet his day is ruined. He is starting to feel depressed. He wants to return to normal.

But do we remember what ‘normal’ was like? Earlier this morning I re-read my ‘End Time Blues’ blog from last December, which reported that there were so many not-good things happening and yet made no mention whatsoever of COVID-19 or a possible global pandemic. The thing is, those not-good things have continued happening, we have all just been ignoring them as we grapple to learn the language of social-distancing, face masks, and hand-sanitizers.

My response to the chaos of 2019 was to dry a selection of pole beans, various heritage varieties which I had grown over the summer, and then sell them at the Christmas Craft Market as Apocalixir Beans. The basic premise was that if the Zombie Apocalypse arrived, one could hide in the basement and cook the beans and live on them, the elixir of life, until things quietened down. And if there was no Zombie Apocalypse by June (2020), you could plant them in your garden and grow your own crop for next year. I sold a number of jars, mostly to people who thought they’d make a great ‘gag gift’ for someone.

The Farmers’ Market was closed down in March, and then reopened as an outdoor market during the summer. Unfortunately, my daughter owns and operates a cheese supply company and was therefore not able to participate, as the Health inspectors were not keen on her sitting in a parking lot cutting up wheels of Brie. Eventually, in late October, it was decided that the indoor market could open again, albeit with a limited number of customers, and I got my Saturday job back.

As the customers returned, I met up once more with some of the people who had bought my beans last year. They reported two things. First, some told me that they had been pleased to have the little jars on hand during the shortages of spring, providing a modicum of comfort when food, toilet paper and other essentials were in short supply. Second, others said that they had planted the beans in a sunny spot and grew their own vines, and in some cases even got the plants to harvest.

So, both advertised options were apparently feasible and illustrated the foresight of the purchasers, as well as the old adage that many a truth is spoken in jest. Sadly, the Christmas Craft Market was cancelled this year, due to COVID restrictions and a mini-outbreak here on the Island. Which is sad because I had another good harvest and could have tried to sell my Apocalixir Beans again. If things were normal.

It seems to me that this might be part of the problem. We’re having a hard time getting our heads around the possibility (fact?) that things are probably not going to be going ‘back to normal’.

Indeed, perhaps it is time that we recognized that we are going to have to create a new normal for our lives. What might that look like? How might we adapt to life with COVID?

Our adaptations will no doubt be based on three hopes. But these are just hopes, they are not predictions. Because really, who knows what the heck is going to happen next? And let’s face it, even hope has a serious downside these days.

First, we hope that the supply chain will ensure that the newly developed vaccines get to everyone who wants to have them. That said, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the process of vaccinating the population won’t be completed until towards the end of 2021, and that’s only for those of us fortunate enough to live in a western industrialized country with a strong infrastructure.

There are many parts of the world where the ability to store a vaccine at -80 simply does not exist. Even within the WEIRD countries (i.e., those that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic), populations who are unable to travel to the place where the vaccine can be stored are going to be out of luck for a while, as apparently the people have to go to the needle, not the other way round. So, unless you are independently mobile, and live in an urban centre with a designated freezer, your time will come later rather than sooner.

Second, we hope that we will not have terrible forest or bush fires, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, significant conflicts, asteroid impacts, winter storms, plagues of locusts and other pestilences. The effects of a changing climate are being experienced across the planet and are visible everywhere except on the 24 hours news channels. According to Copernicus, the EU Climate Change Service, November 2020 was the warmest November since records began.

The Arctic Institute notes that the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and the permafrost is melting, leading not only to an impact on infrastructure but also to the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Oh, and just for fun, that is raising a concern that viruses which have been frozen for thousands of years will begin to thaw out and bring old pestilences back to life. Soon we might be saying, “move over, COVID, there’s a new game in town.”

Third, we hope that we shall all get to travel internationally again. The reliance of so many economies on unfettered tourism has been exposed this year. Those of us who live in places that others like to visit found that the pandemic exacerbated the chasm between those who own tourist operations and those who work in the industry. The large resorts were able to pivot and restructure themselves as ‘isolation hotels’, where returning residents and essential workers could stay for their required quarantines. The people who sold the gifts in the craft shops, meanwhile, were laid off and forced onto government support. They will probably not be hired back until the cruise ships return, or the airlines resume service.

One day, perhaps towards the end of next year but perhaps more likely in 2022, the WEIRD countries will have reached ‘herd immunity’ against COVID-19. We still may not know whether this requires just the one vaccination, or becomes an annual event like the flu shot, but at least most people will be immunized. There seems to be an agreement among epidemiologists that 70% of the population need to be either recovered from the coronavirus or else vaccinated against it in order for herd immunity to be achieved.

That might work on a local or even national level in many countries, but it will be very difficult in others. There are currently 7.8 billion people in the world, which means that someone will have to make 5.46 billion doses, sometimes double ones. Media reports indicate that “according to health officials, each box containing the vaccines … will need to be opened and unpacked manually at specially licensed sites. The shots also have to be checked by a specialist medical logistics company to ensure there was no damage in transit.”

How is the vaccine going to be delivered to the islands of Papua New Guinea, the mountains of central Afghanistan, the villages of the Šar region of the Balkans, all places where I have lived and worked? It’s going to take months, if not years, to get this vaccine out to the global community.

I had intended that this would be a ‘feel good’ blog, something to cheer me up (and hopefully you as well!) in the days before this most unChristmaslike of Christmases. I was thinking of the year ahead, of all the things I’d like to do, of all the places I’d like to visit. Sadly, the world got in the way, and those thoughts will have to wait until another blog.

till, I am grateful that I can follow Russell Wangersky’s lead, and go for a walk in my garden and the adjacent fields and woods. I’ve just got to find my mask.

Bubbling Along

There are farm stands all over the Island selling pumpkins and squash, corn cobs and hay bales, turnips and zucchini. Some of these are eaten, most become decorative so as not to interfere with Burger Love (seriously: https://peiburgerlove.ca/); at least there’s no Porktoberfest this year.

Some of the huge orange pumpkins are no doubt being kept and will be carved for Halloween, the next festival in the run-up to Christmas, but many are being used now. As you drive around you see them sitting on many doorsteps, and often there is a display of corn stalks, large green zucchini and yellow squash as well, all artfully arranged on a hay bale and offset by a pot of red or orange chrysanthemums, or a planter of multicoloured kale. A colourful cornucopia of all that this land can offer us.

No wonder my First Nation friends call it the “You’re Welcome” weekend.

In the USA they celebrate Thanksgiving in November. After the election.

Our main meal tends to be a big roast turkey, with a breaded sage and onion stuffing at one end and sausage meat at the other, served with mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, roasted squash, carrots, gravy, etc., as side dishes. On the Island there is a certain pride at stake as well, as it is acceptable to murmur (not brag!) that “I grew all these myself, you know.” Unfortunately, we can’t have any guests this year, so I’ll mention it to you instead!

A week or so ago, in my first blog for six months, I managed to avoid focusing on the two items which have dominated our news cycles recently. I tried to encapsulate some of the things that have been going on as well as the global pandemic, but which might have been lost in the noise of COVID19. Indeed, of the 25 stories that I mentioned, only 3 related to the coronavirus, and only one referred to the US election.

I’ve since heard from a few of you who’ve agreed that it’s been a dismal year, or a totally f**ked up one as someone phrased it, and I’ve heard from others who’ve told me in no uncertain terms that my litany of woes wasn’t really helping! I agree – but as I asked in my ‘End Time Blues’ blog of last December, before this all started, “Does one simply turn off all the newsfeeds and pretend nothing is happening?”

Perhaps we should. In Canada, we have been very fortunate when compared to many other countries. We have not experienced the tragedies that have occurred in Italy, Spain, the UK, or other parts of Europe. We have not been exposed to the chaos and carnage of Mexico, Brazil, India, or the United States. So, in many ways, living in Canada is to live in a small little bubble in the world.

Within Canada, the Maritime provinces are in their own little bubble as well. Most of the Canadian cases are in the larger and more urbanized provinces of Quebec and Ontario, with significant numbers also in Alberta and British Columbia. Here on the east coast our numbers have been a lot lower, with fewer than 2000 cases and less than 100 deaths across all four provinces.

And within the Maritimes, our little Island seems to be in its own bubble as well, with 59 reported cases that have all recovered, and no hospitalizations or deaths at all.

So, if I turn off the news and ignore what has been happening in the world these past six months, here are some of my experiences from living in a bubble in a bubble in a bubble, as cocooned from reality as one might possibly be without pharmaceutical assistance.

The first couple of months of COVID were challenging here, as they were everywhere. The Island pretty much closed itself off from the world. The ferry service was cancelled, as were most flights, and a checkpoint was established on the Confederation bridge. A few ‘essential workers’ were still allowed in, plus Islanders who had been stuck somewhere else and were coming home, but that was it. Seasonal residents and tourists were banned. ‘Foreign’ number plates (from Ontario or Quebec, for example!) were identified and reported. Restaurants and bars were closed, as were many shops and service providers. We were allowed to travel pretty freely on the Island, but there wasn’t anywhere to go. My working life stopped – it’s hard to be an international consultant when there are no planes flying. I did manage to teach a course for the University of Saskatchewan, but instead of having a couple of weeks in Saskatoon, which the late great Leonard Cohen described as the ‘Paris of the Prairies’, I had to pivot online.

Slowly things started to ease up a little and by the beginning of July, the Atlantic bubble was established. At the same time live music returned to the Island, with small concerts being organized. These were limited to 50 people, seated at socially distant tables, and were nerve-wracking for all concerned. For the audience, we weren’t sure quite how things were going to work. For the musicians, some hadn’t been on a stage since February and were learning their craft all over again. But it was good to get out, good to support people who needed it, good to be part of an audience. We have a lot of fabulous musicians here on the Island, and with the Atlantic Bubble we even managed to attract a couple from Nova Scotia. So that was all good.

And as we moved into July, we were blessed with an incredible summer, with 99 days where the temperature exceeded 20 degrees Celsius. It was supposed to be 100 days but on the last day the ‘official’ thermometer at the airport stopped at 19.6, so we can’t claim it. Even though my car told me it was 21 degrees outside.

I spent the summer in my garden, planting flowers and growing food. Victoria and I grew lots of things from seed and most of them transplanted well. I have nearly finished landscaping the pond, and that has now attracted a dozen frogs from two distinct species. Five of my goldfish survived the winter, to my amazement, and were a joyful sight in the early spring. Then they disappeared. I found a couple of dozen corn husks lying around and figured they had been brought down by racoons, who often wash their food before eating it. Perhaps they had then scooped out my fish as well. After a couple of weeks, I went back to the pet shop and bought seven new goldfish. They seemed to acclimatise pretty well. Then one day there were twelve goldfish in the pond, five big ones and seven little ones.

This was a bit of a shock, as the pond is only about 4 feet deep. I have no idea where the missing five had been for three weeks. But I know what they were doing.

In mid-summer, the seven new goldfish were now medium sized, and all 12 would swim around, in and out of the lily pads, all very dramatic. Then I saw some minnows. Half a dozen or so, very small black fish. I was flummoxed. The pond is a self-contained unit, with no stream or creek connecting it to anywhere else. Where could minnows have come from, I wondered.

Victoria told me, authoritatively, that ducks often transported small minnows from one water source to another. She described in detail how the duck, swimming around in pond or stream A, would not realize that a minnow had got caught up in its leg feathers. The bird would then fly to pond or stream B, where it would paddle around, and the minnow would get shaken off into the new body of water. This of course made perfect sense to me and in the absence of any other information, became the accepted origin story.

The next day there were 20 or so minnows, the day after another 20. There are now over a 100 of them, and they have not only grown but many have also changed colour. There are gold ones and white ones and multihued ones … they look wonderful, darting through the shallows at the edge of the pond. Not minnows, but baby goldfish. Duck-assisted travellers indeed. Victoria still laughs that I believed her.

I’m not sure how many of my minnows will survive the winter, being stuck under the ice for two or three months. Some are getting to the size of my little finger now, so they might have a chance, but it seems like there have been three hatchings (is that what one calls it, when fish eggs become fish?) because there are three distinctly different sizes of minnow. It will be fun to see what the spring looks like – but if there are a lot then that might be problematic. The pond is rain-filled only, and I don’t know how many fish it can support.

I might have to get one of those long-handled nets and try to catch some. I could put a selection of old jam jars in the back tray of my truck, some empty and some filled with water (and a goldfish), then charge small children $1 to throw a ping pong ball and see if they can land it in a jar with a fish. $2 for three balls. That should be an interesting way to spend a Saturday morning at the Farmer’s Market and would no doubt make me really popular with parents!

Of course, this summer was enhanced mightily by the football (soccer) news from England. As some of you know, I am a born and bred Leeds United supporter. Indeed, one of the last things I was able to do, pre-pandemic, was go to Elland Road with my brothers and watch Leeds win. Little did we know it would be the last game in front of spectators for that year, and even for this year so far. Everything got put on hold for over three months, and when the league restarted in early July, we continued to win games, and the Championship, and were promoted to the Premier League. Where we belong. So now, as the winter nights start to draw in, and the cold winds blow, I am warmed by the knowledge that nearly every weekend there will be a Leeds game on TV, and I’ll be Marching On Together with other like-minded souls. Ah bliss.

So that was the summer of 2020. I spent a lot of time in my garden, growing stuff that we have frozen and pickled and canned in the hope that if (or when) things go sideways again, at least we’ll have something to eat. Leeds United won the Championship and got promoted back where they belong. I got to go to a half-dozen or so concerts and thoroughly enjoyed being in one of the few places in the world with live music. I took advantage of the Atlantic Bubble and managed a weekend in Nova Scotia, visiting friends in Cape Breton.

I didn’t learn to speak French properly, or to play the guitar, or to develop any other new skill. I didn’t have to cope with losing family or friends to COVID. I didn’t get restricted to my house except for an hour a day of exercise or limited to a 3-mile radius except for shopping. I didn’t run out of toilet paper or yeast. I just carried on, as one does.

That said, I did lose some good friends. I chafed at not being able to grieve properly, at not being able to provide support to their surviving partners or children, at not being able to attend a funeral or a wake. If 2020 is the year of COVID, it seems like 2021 will be the year of memorial services and celebrations of life.

So, on that note, in closing I would like to use this space to remember five particular people who were lost this year. Richard Rusk, a renowned architect who was my daughter Kate’s father-in-law and who provided much needed help (and comic relief) when we tried to show the wedding guests how to open a lobster; John MacLeod, a good friend and mentor, who for many years was a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and who introduced me to the statistical concept of ‘optical significance’; Roni Godwin, the much-loved wife of another friend, Debbie, who taught with me in the Dene community of Black Lake, northern Saskatchewan; Uncle David, my father’s youngest brother and the last of that generation, who used to go shark fishing off Cornwall. All will be missed.

As will be Dr. Steve Wilde, one of my best and longest-standing friends, whom I met on our first day of teachers’ college, in 1971. He was from London, I was from ‘up North’. He was a rabid Tottenham Hotspur fan, which I could never understand, and he played a mean guitar. Over the years we have been a regular part of each others lives, celebrating momentous occasions together. He carried me home from my 21st birthday party, I dragged him out of many ill-advised arguments. With some other friends we were hippie travellers in an old Volkswagen camper across Europe and the Middle-East, on the “Katmandu for Christmas” route, having all the adventures you might imagine five 20-somethings would have at such a time and in such a place.

In India he was struck by the life conditions of the people he met and came back from that trip determined to retrain as a medical doctor, which he did. He visited me in Papua New Guinea, exploring the villages of the Sepik River by canoe and crashing my new truck on a mountain highway, something I never let him forget. I could find his house in England without a map, as he could many of mine in Canada, and rare was the year in the last 49 that didn’t include an evening of food and drink and conversation, not only reminiscing but considering the current issues of the day, before finishing with a wee dram and a song or two from Tom Paxton or Leonard Cohen. My deepest condolences to his wife, Anne, and to his sons Adam and Tim.

Steve, this one’s for you. COYS.

One Hundred Days of Summer

Well here we are – it has been six months since my last blog, and I apologize for that tardiness. It just seems that every time I sit down to write about something I have experienced in the world, something else happens, and I get sidetracked. But yesterday was the last straw. I was reading a story on the BBC website and got introduced to Naegleria fowleri, a threat so ridiculous it sounds like it comes from a Monty Python sketch. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but first a review of the year.

Spoiler alert – it is not very happy reading.

Trigger alert – contains references to climate change, armed conflict, societal upheaval, global pandemics, economic devastation, and general human stupidity.

Incompletion alert – this is just a review of some things I have noticed, and I don’t pretend it to be an authoritative summary. Please feel free to add your own stories.

So with those caveats, here we go …

January: The United States authorized the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq; Iran retaliates by firing missiles at US bases and then a Revolutionary Guards unit accidently shoots down a Ukrainian airliner, with 63 Canadians among the 176 people killed.

January: Five earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 to 6.4 hit Puerto Rico over a three-week period, causing $3.1 billion in damage.

January to now: Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Mali, Ukraine and Yemen continue to cause thousands of civilian deaths (as well as military ones). Political and social upheaval continues in Brazil, Libya, Myanmar, Syria, and Venezuela, among other places. Now a war has erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

January – March: The Australian bushfires burnt over 18.5 million hectares (46 million acres, which is about 33 times the size of Prince Edward island or 1.4 times the size of England), killing at least 34 people and nearly 3 billion terrestrial vertebrates – mainly but not only reptiles.

January – April: 460 confirmed tornadoes churned across the south-central US, which is worrying as the main tornado season is in the fall.

February – April: hundreds of millions of desert locusts decimated East Africa, swarming all over Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia and causing significant crop damage.

March to now: A worldwide pandemic was declared as COVID19 spread around the world. In my last blog (March 24), I noted that “the number of people infected [by COVID19] world-wide is rising rapidly – it took 3 months for there to be 100,000 cases, and then only another 12 days for that to double to 200,000. A week later there are 400,000+ cases, and it will be illustrative to see how rapidly that total continues to rise.” Well, the numbers just doubled and then doubled again, and there have now been over 33.1 million cases and over one million deaths.

April: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hospitalized and in intensive care with coronavirus.

April: The Great Lockdown led to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s; at one-point crude oil was trading at minus $35 a barrel.

April to now: Severe tropical cyclone Harold caused catastrophic damage to South Pacific Islands such as Vanuatu and Fiji (April), Cyclone Amphan tore through India and Bangladesh (May) and Typhoon Maysak was the largest storm ever to hit South Korea (September).

April to now: Las Vegas broke its previous record of no rain for 150 days and as of Monday 28 September has had no measurable rain since 20 April (161 days).

May to now: The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has featured a total of 24 tropical or subtropical cyclones, 23 named storms, 8 hurricanes, and 2 major hurricanes, all of which hit the southern US and then (so far) faded out before causing damage to Canada. The season continues for another month.

May to now: Months of civil unrest in the United States followed the death of George Floyd and was exacerbated by other incidents coming to light. In September, the Department of Justice declared three cities – New York, Seattle and Portland (Oregon) – as “anarchist jurisdictions.”

June: The warmest June on record, with temperatures of +1.5C or more above ‘normal’ pretty much everywhere around the world and at one point reaching 38C in Siberia – the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic.

July – now: The wildfires in the western United States burnt over 6.6 million acres (nearly 5 times the size of PEI), killing at least 30 people. There have been minimal reports of animal fatalities.

July – September: Severe flooding in Sudan led to over 120 deaths, while monsoon flooding in South Asia (Indian, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal) resulted in over 1300 fatalities.

August: 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut, killing more than 200 people, wounding 5000 others, and leaving 300,000 residents temporarily homeless. 

August: Highest temperature ever recorded on earth of 54.4C reported in Death Valley, California.

August: A derecho caused severe damage across Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and other central states in the US. According to the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a derecho “is a widespread, long-lived wind storm associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms variously known as a squall line, bow echo, or quasi-linear convective system. Although a derecho can produce destruction similar to that of a tornado, the damage typically occurs in one direction along a relatively straight swath.” It now joins “weather bomb” and “polar vortex” as a meteorological word I’d never heard of until recently.

September: Denver broke 14 temperature records (both hot and cold) in 6 days – including going from 34C to -0.5C overnight on 7/8 September.

September: ‘Zombie Tropical Storm’ Paulette re-establishes itself after disintegrating in the south Atlantic.

September: The two contenders for the Presidency of the United States redefine the word “debate”.

October 2, 2020: Today. This is the one hundredth day on PEI where the temperature has met or exceeded 20 degrees Celsius this year. Our ‘normal’ number of +20 days is 79, so this is basically a 25% increase over the annual average. It has made for a gorgeous summer, although the farmers have complained about the lack of rain, and of course there were very few tourists around to enjoy the beaches. But even a sunny day casts some shade, I guess.

It has also just been announced that President Trump and his wife have both tested positive for the Coronavirus. Which is sad, as nobody wants anyone to become ill, but at the same time it does reduce their risk of contracting Naegleria fowleri, the new threat to our world.

If you haven’t heard of this one, it’s quite a doozie. In essence, it’s an amoebic microbe that eats your brain! Interestingly, though, it only infects people when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose. This typically occurs when people go swimming or diving in warm freshwater places, like lakes and rivers. The Naegleria fowleri amoeba then travels up the nose to the brain where it destroys the brain tissue. You can’t get it by drinking contaminated water, or from water vapour such as shower mist, it has to go up your nose.

It seems that Naegleria fowleri has been around for quite some time, but it is now spreading into the northern hemisphere because global warming has increased the water temperature in the lakes and rivers to the point that the amoeba can now survive in places where it was previously absent. And of course, on hot summer days many people tend to jump into any available river or lake, hoping for the cooling effects. If you are part of that group, please try to keep your head above water.

Which is a good way of looking at the world, really.

Pandemiconium

24 March 2020

A month ago, I was sitting at the table in our Portuguese apartment trying to figure out which of three local wines I liked best. The late afternoon sun was shining on the Douro river, the oranges on the trees in the garden were shimmering in a light breeze, and the wines had each cost less than €3 a bottle. Exactly one month later I am sitting at the desk in my home office, trying to figure out what surface to disinfect next. The late afternoon sun is highlighting some of the low grey cloud and reflecting up from the snow drifts in the garden, the leafless branches of the maple trees are swishing urgently in the wind, and the liquor stores are all closed. What a difference a month makes.

I’m in Day 11 of self-isolation and, so far, it’s not going too bad. Mind you, as a colleague from Calgary mentioned, those of who us who have been teaching online or are part of international research networks have been practising for this for a decade! Spending ones day in a home office, communicating by e-mail or FaceTime or Skype or WhatsApp, never interacting with a real person except at a distance, only venturing into the living part of the house during the eveningthis is all normal for many academics. What is different, apart from the fact that the rest of the household is now home as well, is that there is a psychological barrier to going outside. In normal times one might stay at home from choice, but maintain the possibility of going out to meet friends for coffeenow that option has been removed.

After Portugal I went to the UK, planning to be there for a couple of weeks. After a week I got spooked by the UK media coverage of the pandemic and called Air Canada. I was able to get an earlier flight back and left London on a Friday morning. Heathrow was eerily empty. I got to Toronto late on Friday afternoon and connected through to home, arriving at 0200 on Saturday.

In Toronto I was delighted to discover that they have a new system in place, where passengers with connecting flights clear customs and immigration in a separate room and then get bussed to the domestic terminal, no longer having to leave the air-side and then re-enter via security. The customs lady was very nice, asked me where I’d been, said welcome back to Canada, and waved me through.

That was it! No health questions, no probing about the places I’d been to in England or Portugal, nothing. Not even a request to check for symptoms over the next week or so. After the screaming headlines in the British press, it was a welcome reprieve, if one I found a little bizarre. The next day I saw a recommendation from Health PEI that returnees from international travel should practice 14 days of self-isolation. So, here I am, with lots of time for thinking. Perhaps too much!

Generally, things are not too bad in Canada, yet. Our daily routines are framed by two events. First, the morning press conference from the Prime Minister, who himself is self-isolating, praising Canadians for all the good things they are doing to keep our country safe. Second, the afternoon press conference from the Provincial Chief Medical Officer [PCMO], telling us off for not maintaining enough distance in grocery stores or buying too many toilet rolls. The good cop – bad cop routine is probably unplanned but is nonetheless very effective.

The PCMO was particularly cross when it was announced that the liquor stores and cannabis shops would be closed at 2:00 pm the next day. Islanders immediately stopped whatever they were doing and rushed off to, lined up for, and crammed into, both kinds of shop. After berating us all for ignoring the rules about social distancing, she did acknowledge, belatedly, that perhaps officials had misjudged what Islanders considered essential! Most people here say they were stocking up because they expected to the bootleggers and dope dealers to be back in business by 2:15 pm and prices would likely go up.

Globally, it seems that a pattern where countries ‘spike’ about a month apartChina in January, Italy in February, Spain in March, and probably the UK in April. I reckon we’re about a month behind the UK and so I’m expecting total chaos here in May or possibly June, unless the warmer weather interrupts things. My calculations might also be thrown out of whack by the situation in the US, especially as we have only just closed that border, and then only to tourists and non-essential travel. There are loopholes in the cross-border agreement big enough to drive a very large truck through.

Things are still relatively quiet here on the Islandwe’re small enough that the government has been able to install road blocks and health checks at the bridge, the ferry terminal, and the airport, so that will help control incoming tourists (or returning residents). Except for people on essential business, everyone who comes to the Island is now being asked to self-isolate for 14 days, no matter where they came fromapparently nobody has yet tried to claim a quick trip over to Costco as an essential activity. Most people here are following the new rules, and we’re already seeing ‘social shaming’; the other day someone called out a fellow who was in the supermarket, “You just got back from Florida yesterday, what’re you doing outside?” 

Social shaming, social distancing, self-isolationthe new vocabulary of our times. These phrases are all indicative of a very human response to the COVID19 pandemic.

And yet, there are other elements to this situation that we seem to avoid as discussion topics, ironic realities that are worthy of consideration. For one, isn’t it ironic that those who are taking an individual approach, who view themselves as invincible and are ignoring all the guidelines related to gatherings, are in effect putting the social collective at risk. Whereas those who believe in the social collective, and are making sure they do their best to preserve appropriate distances and so forth, are providing the anti-social individuals with the herd immunity and support they need in order to maintain their individual anti-social actions.

For another, it is helpful to put our minds back a few months. Our main concerns at the end of the second decade of the 21st century were focused on ‘big picture’ issues such as taking steps to combat global warming, being concerned about global overpopulation, countering the insidious nature of the internet, andin Canada at leastworrying about caring for a generally aging population. Isn’t it ironic that COVID19 is addressing all these on our behalf?

Suddenly, global levels of smog and CO2 gases have been reduced significantly, as factories are shut down, planes are grounded, and fewer people are driving cars because their work has been closed. Suddenly, a highly contagious virus with an average fatality rate of 3.4% of infected individuals (14.5% for those over 80 years of age) is starting to ‘flatten the curve’ of global population growth. The number of people infected world-wide is rising rapidlyit took 3 months for there to be 100,000 cases, and then only another 12 days for that to double to 200,000. A week later there are 400,000+ cases, and it will be illustrative to see how rapidly that total continues to rise. Suddenly, the Internet is starting to collapse under its own weight, as house-bound people under “shelter in place” restrictions try to access entertainment and communications online. Suddenly, there is an expectation of a ‘baby boom’ next December, the outcome of other diversions resulting from long periods of being quarantined at home.

It’s so easy to get swallowed up by all these matters and that way madness lies. It’s a pandemic, yes, but we’ve had others, and no doubt more will come in the future. Right now, the best way to cope with this one is to wash your hands a lot and try not to get too close to other people. Actually, the best advice I heard was from a British epidemiologist. He said, “Don’t worry about catching the virus. Pretend you already have it, and now just make sure you don’t give it to someone else.” If we all did that, if we simply tried not to give the virus to others, then pretty soon nobody would have it.

Once things calm down, hopefully later in the summer but perhaps not until the fall, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact the virus has had on the overall life of the planet. In the interim, I’ll finish my 14 days of self-isolation, and then enter a phasethe length of which is unknownof socially distancing myself from others. Because this situation isn’t going to go away, and just because I didn’t bring the virus back from England doesn’t mean that I can’t catch it from someone else. Like everyone else, I shall have to get used to this new normal, of keeping friends and strangers at a 2m distance, of not being able to get my hair cut, of going to the grocery store at odd hours in order to avoid the biggest lines, of not being able to go to movies or plays or concerts. The spring and summer of 2020 are going to be unlike any other period of our lives.

Wherever you are, stay safe. Wash your hands. Avoid crowded spaces.

And remember, even if we each individually are required to keep 2m away from other people, we have the technology to keep in touch and communicate at a distance. There is no requirement that we must become Carthusian hermits, locked away in monastic cells under a self-imposed vow of silence. To be human is to be part of a community, and now more than ever it is important that we all participate in that community.

A pandemic does not need to result in pandemonium.