COVID-19: This Time It’s Personal

As regions and municipalities start to relax their lockdowns, advice is starting to pop up about risk and decision making. It is almost entirely addressed to readers in the second-person singular. For instance, Madison physician James Stein outlined different levels of personal risk and says “I can’t make decisions for you”; The New York Times op-ed “Putting the Risk of Covid-19 in Perspective” uses the “micromort,” or one in a million chance of dying, as the way to measure Covid-19 risk.

But all of these perspectives are highly personalizing, as if risk is an individual decision. The reporting sounds like it’s from the lifestyle section, where you can decide whether you want to follow the no-knead or sourdough approach to baking bread, or whether it’s ok to still like a Michael Jackson song. Covid-19 is like none of those things in terms of risk or responsibility.

Since nobody can know if they have been infected with the virus, risk is not a personal decision. In going out, or not wearing a mask, you are making decisions to put other people at risk, both by potentially transmitting the virus, and by thereby potentially filling up emergency rooms and intensive care units (NB: Montreal’s ERs are already over capacity).

I am not arguing against going out or even some measure of harm reduction. Rather, I am arguing that if you are concerned about the virus and think that the lockdown was a good idea, the right approach in assessing risk is civic, rather than personal. How much risk should the others around you tolerate so that you can exercise the freedom of going out? How can you move about the world in such a way as to minimize risk to others? I realize that there are people who don’t care, as amply demonstrated by the anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests in the U.S. I am not writing for them. I am writing for the people who care, or want to believe that they care.

All of this has a fine point for me because Quebec just announced its triage guidelines in the event that intensive care units are overrun. While there are a lot of great things about our healthcare system here compared with the U.S. system in which I grew up, it is subject to the same managerialist cost-cutting one finds elsewhere, which means that there are real limits to what the system can accommodate in a crisis.

The guidelines are shockingly ableist, and the Société québécoise de la déficience intellectuelle has launched a project to persuade the National Assembly to change them not to exclude people with disabilities. But even if that gets fixed, I am caught up in another net that is unlikely to change.

Among the people who will be triaged out of intensive care are people with “metastatic malignancies,” in other words, people with cancer that has metastasized to other organs. That’s me. Although my drugs are working well and my cancer is “well-controlled,” if ICU’s were overrun and I showed up at the hospital, even though I am technically not sick from the cancer and only from my treatments, I would be triaged out.

I am not saying I’m special here: plenty of people are told by the state that their lives don’t matter, as the police murder of George Floyd yesterday in my hometown of Minneapolis sadly demonstrates, and as the Quebec guidelines also show.

But I’m seeing a lot of people who consider themselves progressive and good-hearted starting to talk in terms of personal risk. Don’t. If we’re friends, instead of thinking about how much risk you’re willing to tolerate for yourself, consider if you’re willing to put me in mortal danger, knowing that my safety net just got a lot thinner. Then, remember that everyone you might bump up against has someone who loves them. That should be our measure for how to act in public.

And if I turn down your social invitation in the next couple weeks, or counterpropose a Zoom dinner, you’ll know why.

Instant thoughts on moving instruction online for the fall

I was very happy to read that McGill is taking instruction online in the fall. There are still some ambiguous words in the provost’s email about the student experience, on-campus seminars and learning experiences, etc.* But this is so much better than pretending everything will be the same when we know it can’t be. And it’s something approaching a science-based response to a public health crisis (an approach sorely lacking in Quebec right now).

I am very motivated to do the best I can for my students under the circumstances. Taking courses online will be a ton of work and require special consideration given that they will still be dealing the pandemic in the fall. Cathy Davidson has a great piece on the student experience that’s now a blog post, and which I highly recommend. But there are still a lot of problems to be solved. McGill has a lot of rules and regulations about what we can require of students, and those will need to change to fit the situation. This will affect how we can teach and evaluate. Students also have privacy rights in Quebec that they don’t have elsewhere, which raises questions about Zoom and other courseware taking a more prominent role in instruction.

And let’s not forget that profs will have all sorts of new access needs; not just the students. For once, profs with mobility issues won’t have to struggle to get to or around campus several times a week (McGill is the most inaccessible space I have ever worked). But now people with disabilities that affect their experience of online communication will have a host of new problems to deal with. And then there are all the profs who can’t simply set up to teach in their homes because of care work, or living arrangements, or other life circumstances.

This is absolutely the right move, but it is just the beginning.

Postscript: I forgot to mention that our department did a cool thing a couple weeks ago that others might want to do. Rather than making the fall transition an individual problem for profs, we met and made subcommittees and will try and produce templates (or at least options) so we are not all reinventing the wheel on our own. This probably only works in departments that are functional units, but I am fortunate to have that.

Post-postscript: Our dean followed up with a note suggesting that “we intend for instructors to be available when and where possible on campus, subject to public health directives.” Um, probably not while Montreal is a global hotspot in a pandemic. Unless you count “sneaking in under the cover of night to retrieve something from my office.”

Locked Down Reviews: TV, more of it.

Okay, we’re here for awhile. I’m going to start reviewing stuff. The usual caveats apply. My tastes aren’t yours, they might suck to you and certainly cannot withstand political scrutiny.

There are minor spoilers included but nothing that would ruin it for me if it was the other way around. There is a lot of pointless violence in what we watch. And then we are all like “wouldn’t it be nice to watch something with people talking” and we do that for awhile. YMMV.

The News Hour. This show is on fire. Yes, it is the least cool, least slick TV news show in the United States. Actual old people appear on air as respected authorities. Their usual unvarnished look is less varnished under quarantine. If you are unlucky enough to watch on Fridays you will have to listen to David Brooks talk for awhile. But while everyone seems to be talking about which comedians are pulling the comedy news thing off (note: one of them is not Bill Maher), the News Hour has completely raised their game. It gets repetitive if you watch it 5 days a week, but most episodes, they speak with someone on the “front lines” dealing with Covid (apologies for the war metaphor), they will have testimony from people you never heard from on the news–like actual working people, people of colour, talking about how the economic shutdown or some stupid U.S. policy is affecting them. They will explain how things actually work. Interviews are long form, and the interview questions are always good. Donald Trump loathes Yamiche Alcindor, their White House reporter, because she kicks ass. Two of their other reporters have cats that often make guest appearances on the show. Carrie has been tracking William Brangham’s cats for week. Downsides to their approach include some repetition (but not Rachel Maddow level where it seems like you’re seeing the same show night after night, and not New York Times level where it is literally the same story over and over slightly repackaged); if you get a bad interview, like any elected politician, or a republican doing talking points, it will go on forever; oh, and David Brooks is on Fridays, and he is basically the Jungian archetype for the mediocre white man who thinks he got where he is because he is more excellent than all the other people (see also: much of the rest of the New York Times editorial section). It is best to watch on time-delay so you can fast forward when necessary. We wish there was TV reporting like this in Canada. In the meantime, we’re going to try alternating them and Al-Jazeera news.

Billions. I’m so happy it’s back! A trashy melodrama where the rich and powerful (state’s attorney vs. hedge fund founder) try to outwit and outplay one another. Everything and everyone is corrupt and compromised, but extremely shiny. My code name for this show is “men smouldering at one another” because the best part of each episode is where Paul Giamatti or Damian Lewis’ characters are consumed with rage at one another/thwarted ambition and say something through gritted teeth because they cannot let their feelings out. There’s also a non-binary character played by Asia Kate Dillon who embodies the old Dungeons and Dragons alignment of lawful evil. They do not, however, smoulder. They emote more flatly, even when betrayed. Nice. If Succession is the Star Trek of trashy rich douchebaggery TV–high concept, big ensemble cast, different leads in different episodes, interleaved stories (also highly recommended)–this is the Lost in Space of douchbaggery, but much much glossier.

Lost in Space. Speaking of Lost in Space, it will not surprise you to learn that the remake is a new, darker take on the classic TV show. It got off to a rocky start (bad writing, so-so acting) by we got into it (did they get better or did we lower our standards?). I’m not normally partial to shows with a child as a main character but they really do pull it off. If there is another season, we will watch it.

The Last Ship. Speaking of Star Trek, this is Star Trek, in navy ships, for conservative Americans, with racism and God shit, and it’s pandemic-themed for the win. It aired on TNT in case that means anything. Carrie’s dad recommended it. To explain it, let me spoil the first episode for you. A U.S. navy ship goes up above the arctic circle to do some war games exercises. Oh, and they brought along a couple scientists to collect some samples for their research. They maintain radio silence. Four months later, they turn on the radio and find out, lo and behold, that their mission was actually to carry the scientists because a virus has been ravaging humanity, and in the 4 months they weren’t communicating with anyone, the world was ending. And the scientists were secretly in touch with people back home and knew everything but couldn’t tell anyone. So now they have a possible cure, there are no nation states left, and they’re, like, just one boat and people are pissed at the scientists, whom they also need in order to save the world. The acting is really wooden to start out (it briefly gets better before going to shit again), there is no chemistry to start, some of the lead women look like they’ve been starved and had plastic surgery (you’ll know who I’m talking about). But this is really a show about a group of highly competent people who believe in their mission, who “just happen” to mostly be men. If you meet someone from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Latin America and several other areas, yes, it’s quite likely that they are evil. Even the Greeks eventually get racialized to move the plot forward in a later season. Speaking of race, the cast is actually more multiracial than Star Trek, though the white people are mostly in charge. Carrie would say to me “I would like to watch my competent people now” and I would comply. Yes, we watched all five seasons. It jumps the shark somewhere in season 3. It took a long time to get through it all. #peakpandemicTV

Ozark: A money-laundering accountant/financial planner (love that little detail–it becomes relevant) appears to double-cross his drug-running employer. They must flee from Chicago to the Ozarks, where they must find a way to make it up to the drug lord before he kills them while interacting with a range of people from the area, all of whom are poor or working class white. The show is dark, everything is shot through a blue filter, and the acting is very good. It is occasionally and briefly hilarious, but the violence is really gross, so watch out. We are in season 2 right now. More for grist for the critical white person studies mill.

Designated Survivor: 60 Days. This is the Korean remake of an American show that is still on the air. In the original Kiefer Sutherland is a low ranking cabinet member who is left behind as the “designated survivor” to ensure continuity of government if there is an attack during the state of the union address which, of course, then occurs a few minutes into the first episode. Essentially, Kiefer Sutherland plays a liberal president (who somehow does not belong to a political party) while spending 3 seasons apologizing for having played Jack Bauer, and ever scene with Maggie Q is a failed attempt at an action sequence or police procedural. Yes, we have watched all of it. Yes, it is a crappy version of Madam Secretary, which was a crappy version of the West Wing, which is the shadowy Hegelian double of House of Cards (and vice-versa). So when the Korean remake of Designated Survivor was suggested to us by Netflix, we said what the hell, why not? In a way, it is better than the original. But it is really Korean, which means it’s not made for export: to my Western tastes, the episodes are painfully long, full of weird face acting and unnecessary flashbacks, and the music video sequences make less sense than they do when they are overused on American shows like Manifesto. I wrote to Michelle Cho, a friend at U of Toronto who does Korean Studies, and she confirmed that this is normal because these shows are released simultaneously on Korean TV and Netflix, and there are advertisers and conventions to satisfy. It was just. too. weird. for us. We couldn’t get through the season, despite the long-arc storyline. Rare.

Speaking of Manifest, here is an update. We kept watching, but only when we were feeling very strong, or had something else to do at the same time, like surf the web. The season ended and I still don’t know if I’m watching science fiction or some hobbit shit. Very disappointed not to get resolution on that one.

The Plot Against America: David Simon (The Wire) adapts Phillip Roth’s novel about a fascist America where Charles Lindberg becomes president. Great period settings, didactic storytelling; and it turns out that fascism is bad for the Jews.

Unorthodox. Great performances all around. It turns out that ultra-orthodox male Jews: bad for ultra-orthodox female Jews.

BONUS ROUND: Token movies

Crip Camp. Highly recommended. Is it essential U.S. disability history or inspiration porn? The Obamas produced it, so of course it’s both at once, at least according to review. Actually, they did a good job, but I don’t think disabled people can make documentaries without someone calling them inspiring, so maybe it’s not the film’s fault. It was really great to see film footage of a bunch of stuff I’ve read about in disability history. It definitely oversells the importance of the camp to the movement (except that some important people in the movement came out of the camp, and the camp was important to them), but that’s filmmaking, and memory.

Planet of the Humans: Hell no, Michael Moore. It sucks when one of your heroes disappoints you. (How many smart, successful fat people do you see on TV and in the movies? What’s that? “Something something John Goodman”? Yeah, whatever. My point is made.) Planet of the Humans is basically the highbrow version of Plandemic.

Locked down reviews: Jewish General Hospital + some good news

This morning I arose an a frankly disgusting hour (or so said by body) in order to get my blood drawn at the Jewish General Hospital at 7:30am. I wasn’t sure what to expect. JGH, which is where all my cancer treatment happens, is also one of the hospitals in Montreal designated to deal with covid-19. I figured it was a risky endeavour. Pretty much as soon as I got there, I learned how wrong I was. Coming out of the parking garage (yes, I drove–no public transit for me for awhile), I saw this sad sign by the elevators. I had planned to document the whole visit, but it went by so quickly that I didn’t get the chance.

Upon exiting the elevators on the main floor, someone checked with me regarding what my business was, asked me a couple questions about symptoms, and then gave me a mask. I then walked through the lobbies and to the elevators and rode up to the cancer centre on the 7th floor. Upon existing the elevators there was a nurse taking our temperatures and asking an interminable barrage of questions (I do not object, there were just a lot of them). Once inside, the cancer centre was as deserted as I’ve ever seen it. The bathrooms were all open (unusual!) so I washed my hands. There were people there, but just a few. The seats in the waiting area were all taped so that people wouldn’t sit too close to one another, and they were almost completely empty. I went to the blood test room, gave them my info, walked out to wait, and was called back in almost immediately for them to draw my blood. The phlebotomist sat behind a plastic screen with a hole in it for my arm. Everyone was wearing masks and gloves. I also snuck over to the scale to weigh myself; the nurse there asked if I had a chemo treatment coming up–I said no, I was just curious and she complied. Then I washed my hands again, ran into a nurse I knew and chatted for a bit from behind our masks (at a safe distance), and then I headed out and home. I was back in my apartment less than 90 minutes after I had left. It’s clear the Jewish has completely separated its functions so that I had no inkling of whatever Covid-crisis might be happening in another wing. Upon arriving home, I went and showered and put on fresh clothes. But if I’m honest, I think I am at greater risk going for walks, and I think Carrie is at greater risk buying produce or picking up my drugs. I will fearlessly go in for a blood test any time they ask.

So about that blood test: my doctor called and told me my tumour marker is the lowest it’s ever been and everything else was good. And he was happy with my blood pressures. I confirmed with him that even if the government is stupid enough to open up Montreal in a couple weeks, that doesn’t apply to me. I’m to stay home and remain socially distanced.

The diarrhea saga continues. I’ve been doing prophylactic Imodium, which works although is eventually constipating. We talked about dosages and other strategies. He’s got other options if it doesn’t work. But I’ll be taking Imodium every other day prophylactically to see if it makes a difference. He confirmed that for most of his patients, what they eat doesn’t matter so much. They just have diarrhea or they don’t. So the experiment continues on that front.

We’ll do it again in 4 weeks.

And hey, if you’re reading this on Friday the 1st, go buy some music on Bandcamp.

Do your civic duty to musicians and music: go buy some music on Bandcamp tomorrow

This Friday, May 1st, Bandcamp is waiving their share of revenue for all purchases, which means every penny you spend on Bandcamp goes directly to artists (or small indy labels). Last time they did this, on March 20th, they raised $4.3 million for their musicians, “helping artists cover rents, mortgages, groceries, medications, and so much more”. Spotify, which is considerably more capitalized, gave less and is now promising to go “up to $10 million” in matching funds for organizations when users donate money on top of whatever they are paying for subscriptions, which is typical corporate PR, while Bandcamp should surpass the 3rd time they do this by turning over their profits.

Why use Bandcamp instead of Spotify or Apple Music? Because they are better. Musicians on Bandcamp already have a better deal than streaming platforms in terms of their share of revenue. Bandcamp is also the closest thing I have found online to ye olde indie record store, except there are no asshole clerks. Bonus. They have real live people curating things and promoting them on their blogs–there are daily and weekly options and cover a wide range of genres. I find things on Bandcamp that are frequently unavailable on other platforms, and I know that when I pay for a record, the money mostly goes to the musician rather than the intermediary.

Unlike Spotify and Apple Music, Bandcamp is also profitable while distributing a fair share to musicians. Apple Music probably isn’t profitable, and it is striking that while Bandcamp is doing fine during COVID-19, Spotify’s stock has actually declined. Think about that for a moment. In a time when people are locked in and craving novelty and distraction–have a look at how Netflix is doing right now–Spotify use has actually decreased. I think that says a lot about the streaming business model. I’ll leave aside the differences between machine learning and person-made lists of music recommendations for now, but as someone who studies music and machine learning, let’s just say I prefer the latter even if the “hit rate” for stuff I actually like is lower. Another point for Bandcamp.

Would I like to like in a socialist utopia where all music is free and musicians are cared for and not treated like bait for diverting revenue to rich peopled (along with almost every other category of worker)? Yes, I would. But since we aren’t there yet, supporting outlets like Bandcamp that are actually viable and a universal basic income for everyone seems like our best option. these are not panaceas–they are band aids–but they’re the good, sticky kind that doesn’t fall off easily.

And yes, there are other things you should do too.On a day other than May 1st, if you are able to make ends meet right now, consider sending money groups supporting restaurant and venue workers, venues, Indigenous organizations, shelters, food shelves, and organizations supporting people in your community who may not be eligible for financial support for the government (undocumented people, sex workers, people in the grey market economies, casual labourers, etc.). Here’s a good list for major Canadian cities. Find the people in your own city and make giving and organizations part of your bill paying routine right now. I’ll say more about that in another post.

Musicians aren’t special compared with other workers affected by COVID-19. Music just has a special place in my life, which is why I am paying attention to music especially. If literature, or film, or painting, or performance, or sport is your thing, fine, go support those people. For me it is music. There’s more to say on that score, but I’ll save it for next month.

So Friday, go buy some music on Bandcamp. I’ll post some of my favourites by then.

Work update: a new deadline and a note on endless apologies

The reviews for Diminished Faculties came back at the end of February. The reviewers were positive and had some good suggestions. I wrote my reply, Duke University Press’ board met, and yesterday I signed the contract. That’s some happy news.

I found it actually helpful to publicly announce a deadline, as I did in the fall, so here we go: I would like to have the manuscript back to the press by the 1st of July. I think I can do it. The contract actually says September, but July would be better for a range of reasons. The extra two months allow for medical problems or whatever else might happen.

It feels odd to even announce this. Last night I read a Twitter thread where academics were actually scolding one another for writing scholarship when they should be forming mutual aid groups. This is only a slight exaggeration. It was a response to the academic opportunism where people are circulating calls for papers about the coronavirus, which is annoying, but let’s just say the pendulum was swinging pretty far the other way.

I am, of course, immensely privileged to have the time and space to write (NB: this was true even before COVID-19) and I am grateful for that. I’m not sure what the right voice is for narrating progress on a project while other people are doing double the labour because of childcare or additional responsibilities, or risking their lives to do their jobs, or are suddenly unemployed and worried about falling into poverty. But the reality is that all these things were true, just not as acutely, in February 2020 as well. So I think I just write about it here when I feel like it and spare your, dear reader, any more of the endless apologies that seem to come with every work email in my inbox.

Health Update: Mostly Fine, Some Defecation-Related Content

So, here we are in quarantine. My medical condition is pretty stable, and my spirits remain good. I’m excited to get back to writing my book this week, and I played a bunch of music this weekend. I am making the best of things, and being grateful for the comforts I have.

I’m suddenly doing a lot of telemedicine. I really don’t mind. It’s good of the doctors to keep me out of the hospital and I don’t miss the travel or sitting in the waiting rooms.

Mood is good. Feet are so-so. Hand pain is alright though after a lot of instrument playing today my fingers are really sore. Rock and roll.

There is one problem, however, and involves defecation, so if you don’t want to read about me and excretion, this is your chance to click off.

Here’s a little thing from the internet apropos of nothing in case you want to click away.

So for the last 4-5 weeks, I’ve been having diarrhea on and off. It’s a Godfather 3 situation where every time it seems to get better, I wind up back at ground zero the minute I try anything serious, or perhaps a day later at best. So I have had a few good meals over the last 4 weeks but it’s always after some recovery and not for more than a couple days a shot. At first I thought it was a drug interaction, like in September. I stopped my newest drug, two weeks ago, and nothing changed, except that I missed the effects of the drug (an asthma pill that doesn’t mess with my vocal cords). So today I returned to the thread I started in September in my patents’ group and I discovered two things, both of which are relevant to me now.

  1. A couple people noted that Lenvima made them effectively lactose intolerant. I have found the same thing. I am not allergic to dairy, but high levels of lactose don’t work for me all of a sudden. This is mostly fine being “more vegan plus goat and sheep cheese” but I’m not willing to stop eating mac and cheese and deep dish pizza for the rest of my life/however long I’m on Lenvima. So I’ll figure something out, or just do it once a year and suffer the consequences.
  2. I learned that people take Immodium proactively. Again, I might have learned that in September, but I’d forgotten I’d learned it. As in, if they’re in a spot like I’m in, they’ll take it before they eat. I am so sick of rice and white bread, that I decided to try it tonight. Two Immodiums, then I cooked pasta with porcini mushrooms and assorted vegetables. IT WAS SO NICE TO EAT VEGETABLES AND HAVE FLAVOUR. My last real meal was Friday for Carrie’s birthday (and there was cake), and that was after a couple days of recovery last week. So far so good. No pain, nothing. I will be experimenting with this. UPDATE: this worked. I slept through the night. I feel ok. I have no idea what this means long term.
  3. Bonus: it turns out you can get a hangover from diarrhea. Who knew? A couple times it’s been so bad I haven’t really been able to drink anything until my stomach settles down, and I went to bed dehydrated. The next morning I was fine after some Gatorade or coconut water, but wow, that’s a messed up feeling. All the unpleasantness of having too much to drink and none of the benefits.

On the upside, I’ve been making the “well, at least I’m not full of shit” joke a lot around the house. Because where else would I be?