Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Traveling to all the hot spots

Remember when a place being a hot spot was a good thing? Lively and exciting? (Or possibly a way to connect to wifi?) Now it’s describing villages with abnormally hot temperatures caused by global warming “heat domes”, and in COVID terms, regions with a large number of cases.

Ontario so far is having a relatively normal summer weather-wise, with a mix of hot, sticky days and cool, rainy ones—along with a few exciting thunderstorms, sometimes with hail. (Ontario is not the place for people who enjoy weather constancy.) And COVID-wise, Ontario—with definitely the slowest reopening plan in North America—is doing pretty well. Except for a few hot spots.

One of these was my original home town of Timmins, which until recently had weathered the pandemic really well. But the Delta variant just tore through the place—and more alarmingly, through the remote northern villages up there—in May / June time frame.

We nevertheless decided to visit. Their plight had led to an extensive local vaccination effort, and as a result, almost all our family ended up fully vaccinated sooner than expected. And we hadn’t been there in nearly a year. Felt like time.

Also felt like a bit of déjà vu of last summer’s July visit…

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Running ahead of the herd

Nothing much to do today
I think I’ll do my hair today
Can’t do a thing with it, look at it, this way and that..
Then we’re on the phone, hear the news
It’s all grief and gloom!
Yes, things are bad, really bad
We’re clearly immune
We lead charmed lives

Charmed Lives, Boomtown Rats (songwriter: Bob Geldof)

Been doing a bit of binge-listening to The Boomtown Rats lately. “Charmed Lives” was written in 1982, so is in no way is commenting on the world of 2020–21. But the lyrics certainly struck me in a differently than they had previously. Here we are, all empty social calendars and overgrown hair and terrible news, and yet…

Cathy with band aid and vaccinated bracelet
Post-vaccination photo (the bracelets were part of a hospital fundraiser)

… On our way to immunity, and all the charms that can bring.

I recently received my second dose of the Pfizer COVID19 vaccine. I won’t get into why this is so, but I did qualify for it, no lying or cheating. The timing of both my doses made me something of an outlier at the vaccine clinic. First visit, it was me and a bunch of 80 year olds. Second visit, I was a second dose person in a first dose world: Agreeing to complete a post-vaccine survey only to find I didn’t qualify for it, because my first dose was too long ago. Having to stop the person checking me out from booking me for yet another vaccine appointment, 16 weeks hence.

For what’s it’s worth, I do agree with the delayed second dose strategy, but also wish they’d get a bit more of a move on now in doling them out to those who qualify (like frontline healthcare workers) and in offering them sooner to more people, notably those over 80. Still, it really looks as though enough supply is on the way that few will actually have to wait a full 16 weeks for dose 2. Most will likely get it within 3 months—which studies are indicating is actually better than getting it after only 3 weeks.

In the meantime, what difference does being fully vaccinated make to me? Well, mentally it’s nice, knowing that I’m building even better immunity and becoming less likely to infect others. But otherwise, not much has changed. I still can’t go to a restaurant, salon, movie theatre, or concert hall, because none of those places are open yet. Travel’s not really a practical option, either. And any indoor spaces that are open, masks are still mandatory for all.

So, I’m not relating to all those American articles on the challenges of rejoining society. (Though for the record, when the time comes, I won’t have to adapt to brushing my teeth and taking showers again, or to wearing jeans and other zippered pants and shirts with buttons, because I never stopped doing those things, and can’t really comprehend why anyone else would have…?!? I even kept up with makeup most days—that one, I’ll admit is bizarre—but it’s fun for me, and I don’t care that it doesn’t impress my cats much. On the other hand, wearing shoes with heels, or wearing any sort of fancy dress at all, is something of a distant memory…)

Is this the new evening wear?

But you know, I agree with the slow reopening, because I want this one to stick. What’s true now is what’s been true all pandemic: no one can beat this thing alone. There’s little benefit to being vaccinated if everyone else around keeps getting ill. It’s a group effort. And fortunately, it’s going well.


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The incredible shrinking vacation

Jean hadn’t had any time off since October, and the last week of April was appearing to be the first opportunity to take some. Clearly we weren’t going to be traveling to any distant shores, but this long enough ago that we at first thought we might be able to visit some family. When doing that started to seem unwise (even despite our vaccination status), it still looked as though we could take ourselves somewhere in Ontario.

And then, given increased restrictions amidst rising case counts, we thought maybe just staying over at a local inn (that has great food, to be served in our rooms) for 2 or 3 nights could be possible.

And then, there was the stay-at-homes order amidst still-rising cases, and the inn moved to offering takeout only, and we thought, well… Time off work would still be nice. We can do day trips to hike. We can get some interesting takeout.

And then…

But I’ll get to that.

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Christmas 2020

This year, like most other people, we weren’t able to do what we normally do at Christmas time. A chance to develop our new traditions, perhaps? Except… Will we really want to nostalgically recall anything from 2020?

So hey, best to focus on the now, and on the “what you can do” vs. what you can’t. In 2021 and subsequent, we’ll see if anything sticks.

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The cats’ perspectives on 2020

For most humans, 2020 just hasn’t been the best-est ever. But for the pets of the new work-from-home cohort, I think it’s been a happy time. Cats might be more independent than dogs, but I believe they still enjoy having more opportunities to make demands of their humans.

March 2020, and no stress for these guys at all
Whereas I had to adjust to my new office-mates being a bit on the lazy side

Doesn’t necessarily mean that everything‘s coming up roses for them, however.

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Moving through the stages

It was rather heartening that as Ontario moved more and more regions to stage 2 of reopening, that cases continued to trend downward. In stage 2, restaurants could serve food and drinks on outdoor patios; one could get haircuts, manicures, and tattoos (but not facials); and malls could open their doors.

Now areas are moving into stage 3: indoor dining (with spaced tables and occupancy limits); bars (!!!)—though only seated, no dancing, live music only behind plexiglass; gyms; and facials (for those who care, which isn’t me). Indoor limits increased to 50, not counting staff. And the case trend? Has become a bit of a roller-coaster.

No doubt this is all rather trickier than the earliest stage of, basically, hiding in your basement.

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About that new normal

Things are tentatively reopening in Ontario—parks (not for camping yet), stores (but not the ones in malls), some medical and veterinary procedures (excluding dentists and optometrists).

But Ontario simply hasn’t been testing enough. So we just don’t know what the real levels of community spread are. The only certain thing, at least in my part of Ontario, is that there is some.

So you really have to do your own risk assessment to determine what newly possible activities you want to take advantage of. The blog post The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them has been really influential, with a lot of newspaper articles covering similar points. What’s the gist?

Successful infection = Exposure * Time.

The worst cases occur with a group of people close together indoors in a building with poor ventilation who are speaking loudly (or singing) and sharing food. So it’s safer to be outdoors, and when indoors, best to be able to keep some distance from others, and not stay too long.

This means that some activities that many of us have been worried about—because it’s the only ones we privileged types have been going out to do—aren’t actually that much of a risk. Walking (or riding or jogging) past people outside, even if it’s a bit less than six feet away—is not that risky because the interaction is so brief and the virus doesn’t transmit that well in open air.

Going to the grocery store? Also not that bad, because you’re not there that long, the number of people is restricted such that it’s not crowded, and you’re moving around fairly quickly past different people. Plus with the lone shopping, not so much talking going on. Wearing a mask is a nice gesture also, mostly to protect the store workers from you.

So it will be with other stores that can now open but with restricted occupancy. Plan what you want to buy there, get it efficiently while keeping space, then get out. Wash your hands, and wash them again after unpackaging whatever you bought. (And wash your mask if you wore one.)

Odds are you’re going to be all right.

Working 9 to 5

But what about working in our own offices for 8 to 9 hours a day?

I would note that I have not been asked to do this, so this is merely hypothetical musing.

Atul Gawande, in the New Yorker, notes that hospitals have done a pretty good job of preventing spread among healthcare workers there, and wonders if some of there approaches can be adapted to other workplaces: Amid the Coronavirus Crisis, a Regimen for Reentry. The four-point plan is basically:

  1. Employee screening, with orders to stay home if you’re sick

Gawande notes the issue with relying on temperature checks only: Apart from the fact that some with the disease never do develop a high fever, for those that do, the onset is typically later than with other, milder symptoms. So you really want people with scratchy throats or body aches staying away, even if they’re fever-free. That would need to be made clear.

2. Frequent hand washing

Great, as long as there is copious hand sanitizer about. Otherwise, there would be serious sink lineups happening.

3. Keep distance between employees as much as possible

Definitely a challenge in my office, which (like many) has gone for cramming more cubicles into less space, and even some “banquet table” style seating (side by side and facing, with no separation at all). Many of us having standing desks that put us above divider height (as lower dividers were installed to encourage collaboration). Is it possible to rearrange everything to actually seat everyone six feet apart, with higher dividers? Dunno.

4. Wear masks

Yeah, it’s one thing to wear a mask for a brief shopping trip or transit ride, but quite another to wear one for most of an 8-hour work day. Yes, healthcare workers do, and thank you to them: I’ve seen the photos of how uncomfortable that is. But surgical masks, at least, are better masks than the ones we can get (per the Gawande article); less hot, more breathable.

Furthermore, what about my drinking habit? Seriously, at work, I drink all day long. First coffee…

Then water, then maybe a tea, a decaf, some more water… I think it somewhat defeats the purpose if you’re constantly taking the mask off and on (and so is everyone else). But working dehydrated and with a caffeine headache, with a sweaty face and foggy glasses, does not sound like a recipe for great productivity. (And what about lunch? My afternoon snack?)

So I think some thought needs to be given as to the purpose of actually returning to work at the office.

Environmental factors

For me, though I’m slowly working on it, it’s still true that my office setup is more ergonomic than my home one; my desk there is just better For some people, home might not be a particular good workspace due to noise, pets, lighting, other family members, etc. For those purposes, it could make sense to allow a certain percentage to work at the office each day, as potentially the numbers could be kept low enough that spacing is fairly easy and masks less necessary.

Social factors

Seeing people, and the ease of talking to them. Team building. Building culture. All being missed, but how easy to get back?

You can’t be cramming people into small meeting rooms to have discussions like we used to. We can’t have fitness classes with the previous numbers of attendees. The communal kitchen is a bit of a hazard. Coffee machines might be have to be disabled, so more chats there. Going over to talk to someone might be less welcomed. We can’t open windows. Outside meetings could be nice in July, less so in January. The elevator could become a scary space. Also, the bathroom.

Basically, it’s hard to build warm and fuzzy feelings toward your coworkers when they seem like disease vectors.

And what about leisure activities

The Saturday Globe and Mail featured a list of 46 changes they predicted for the post-pandemic world. (Most of these items are not available online, I’m finding—so no links for you.) I didn’t find it too depressing til I got to the Arts section. (Whereas, the point that flying might not be that fun—or cheap? Not exactly new, right? And at least we might finally get more space.)

But it wasn’t the one about rock concerts likely moving toward smaller venues with sky-high ticket prices. For one thing, there aren’t that many bands still on my “must-see” list. For another, if I did feel I could indulge in such an experience, it could be kind of cool. The article also postulated a cheaper streaming option might be available—which doesn’t sound bad.

And the one claiming that movie theatres would only play blockbusters seemed doubtful. Wouldn’t your little art movies, attracting only the smaller crowds you want, be more feasible?

No, it was the one about theatres moving more to one-act plays, because:

a) They’re cheaper, so the crowd can be smaller

b) Makes it way easier for the actors to keep distance than in a big musical

But not because of plays themselves, which I don’t go to that often anyway.

It’s that it made me think about symphonies.

By their nature, that’s a whole lot of musicians crowded together, some of them playing wind instruments. (Which sometimes need to be cleared of spittle mid-concert, as I recall.) Let alone when it’s a special show with singers or dancers or trapeze artists, or what have you.

And how close the audience seats are? And the crowded lobbies before? And the bathroom lineups? How do you get this to work?

This might not be feasible

Is it viable for a symphony to play with the musicians spaced apart on the stage, to a 25% capacity house, if that’s what’s needed?

I’m doubtful. And it makes me really sad.


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Things accomplished during my stay-cation

The companies have made it clear that we need to take the vacation days to which we are entitled this year–and preferably not all in that last quarter of it. We hope to eventually be able to visit family, even if it’s a hug-free and highly hand wash-y affair.

But our initial two-day vacation was strictly home-based, with different goals than a typical vacation. Less about museums, mountains, and fine dining—and more about just keeping busy with something other than work.

Therefore, hiking the local trails was the main excitement. Though it’s somewhat discouraged, we did drive to trail in Cambridge, and to a RIM park trail on the other side of Waterloo. But the best one we did was in the nature area just outside our door.

Young deer
This guy wasn’t too worried about us
Duck

We also enjoyed walking the neighbourhood Columbia Forest that we snowshoe on in winter. Not as much wildlife viewed, but some lovely foliage, along with it just being interesting terrain (for this part of Ontario).

Trillium
Trillium, Ontario’s flower
Purple flowers
Little purple flower (I’m not good at identifying flowers!)

I’d had the idea of ordering wine from a Beamsville winery and driving to pick it up, but then that seemed… not really that fun. And a lot of wineries offer free shipping.

So while we were not low on wine overall (we just routinely buy bottles way faster than we drink them), we were out of certain styles, such as Ontario Riesling. Not worth standing in an LCBO line up for, but definitely worth ordering from Angel’s Gate Winery: we got both dry and off-dry Riesling styles. And while at it, added a still and a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, a Gamay Noir, and a Syrah. Though warned that shipping could be delayed, the box arrived in two days. We’ve only tried the dry Riesling so far, but it was excellent (and only $15, despite being a well-aged 2008).

Restaurant Relief Case

We’d also been mooning over Wine Align‘s offers of wines normally sold only to restaurants, but now available to the public at the price restaurants would have paid. When the latest case included a donation to support local restaurants and food banks, that seemed excuse enough to go ahead. The mixed case of 12, which just arrived, includes an Italian Chianti, Argentian Malbec, New Zealand Sauvignon, French Cote du Rhone red, and a Spanish cava.

For food, of course, it was mostly home cooking. I made a chocolate-peanut butter pie, I roasted a chicken for dinner one day, and on another made “baked” ziti in the Instant Pot, by following this recipe: Instant Pot Baked Ziti—only vegetarian style, as I didn’t have any ground turkey or Italian sausage. It was still really good, and very easy.

The last vacation day, we got takeout from White Rabbit.

White Rabbit takeout
Fish tacos, cauliflower “wings”, protein power bowl, and more! (Yes, we had leftovers.)

Then, there was the matter of my hair. Going on nine weeks since my last hair appointment, it was both rather long (at least for me) and rather gray-rooty. I decided to tackle the easy part first: dyeing the roots. I was lucky that one of the few remaining colours available from Shoppers was the one I wanted anyway, and also that I don’t have complicated color requirements that (I have learned from Internet reading) are tough to do at home. I just wanted to make the gray more brown. Success!

Me with long but brown hair
Hair coloured but not cut

As for the cutting, Jean’s since made a few modest efforts to shorten the longer pieces that were falling into my face.

He hasn’t missed his calling as a hairdresser.

But, it’s also not a total disaster, and with a bit of gel and hairspray, I can now mostly just style that hair off my face, which is fine. I’m a bit daunted about what to do about the overgrown layers behind that… Attempt a trim? Let it all grow out to equal length? Bah. Still pondering that one.

In the most-est fun ever, we also got our taxes done. This year we used a new (to us) “pay what you want” software, SimpleTax. It doesn’t “walk you through” the tax form in the same way as TurboTax does, so it’s good to have an idea what deductions you qualify for (and therefore, to not have a very complicated taxes to file). But, that also gave you more ability to move around the different forms than TurboTax did, and I liked that aspect. (Along with paying less to do my taxes.)

And it’s true (and maybe sad) that doing taxes wasn’t even the least fun thing I did on vacation. That would be spending a lot of Sunday (the one day with crappy weather) trying to figure out what was wrong with my Sonos sound system. It somehow kept losing the Internet, even though our Internet was running fine. This affected our morning alarm (CBC radio), which set up the whole day badly, and continued with streaming music stuttering out on a regular basis all day.

It’s also very strange to have your Google speaker tell you: “I cannot find the Internet.”

Cat meows at Alexa speaker
From https://www.iizcat.com/post/5485/When-a-cat-meets-Alexa-comic-

The fix, for the 0.0001% who care, was unplugging, then restarting, the Sonos Boost.


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No escape from reality

Ooh, Buffy‘s on. Could be a nice distraction.

Xander: She fell.
Willow: The flu.
Cordelia: She fainted.
Xander: The flu, fainted and fell. She’s sick, make it better!

Giles: Death and disease are, are things, possibly the *only* things that, that Buffy cannot fight.

Killed by Death

Huh. Well, how about some tunes.

I can’t stay on your life support
There’s a shortage in the switch

I think I’ll get outta here, where I can
Run just as fast as I can
To the middle of nowhere
To the middle of my frustrated fears
And I swear you’re just like a pill
‘Stead of makin’ me better
You keep makin’ me ill

Pink, Just Like a Pill

Jesus.


But hey, y’all, we’re doing all right. Feeling healthy, first of all, which is the main thing. Both still employed full-time, which is certainly something to be grateful for. Managed to get toilet paper this week, which is good, especially since they were all out of Kleenex.

And yes, they had no bananas.

Which leaves me with my final words of wisdom for now: Plantains are not at all the same thing as bananas. Do not put raw plantains in the chocolate cream pie!


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Meet the cats

I’ve actually had them since May. Normally I would have written about them earlier, but it hasn’t been a normal year (emotionally, anyway). A lot of my excessive anxiety and depression centered around them.

The integration wasn’t really smooth. Zoe accepted Mac pretty quickly, but took an instant dislike to Gus, and proceeded to bully him for months. (The fact that she’s half his size didn’t particularly matter.) It wasn’t the funnest experience to go through.

But, things have improved.

Gus

Gus, 2 years old at adoption time, was a cat I inquired about when looking at those available from Pet Patrol (the same rescue organization we got Zoe from 13.5 years ago). But we were warned that he was a very anxious cat, and thought maybe it wouldn’t be the best choice.

Shy he may be, but Gus knew how to sell himself. We went into his room at the shelter to see another cat, but she had no interest in us whatsoever. Gus, however, did. He purred and encouraged us to pet him. Whenever we tried to move away, he pulled out a paw to try to get us to stay. It was terribly endearing.

Shy but so sweet

Once at our house, he initially crowded himself into a cat tree cubby and came out so rarely we were worried. His progress was quite slow, aided not at all, of course, by having a cranky old cat run at him whenever he dared to explore new territory.

But, he did expand his world from the cat tree, to the rest of that room, to the room next door, to the whole upstairs–a long phase, that one–but finally on to the main floor, which is where he now spends most of his time. Only in the past few weeks has he been regularly visiting the family room downstairs, and only this week (8.5 months later) become comfortable enough to plunk himself down and snooze in front of the fireplace there.

From the first, though, he had a fondness for getting pet, and at some point–while still mostly living upstairs–he decided that I was great and became incredibly affectionate toward me, with full-body cuddles and loud purring. Jean took longer (Jean is not the feeder), but now Gus will walk up to him for pets also.

Nah, not going to pose for you, non-feeder

He’s the most gorgeous thing, but it seems he had to learn everything about how to be a pet. (Well, not everything. He’s always been great with the litter and a good eater.) How to play. (All the toys scared him at first.) That he is allowed on furniture. (Still working on that, really, but he much more regularly goes on chairs now.) How to get a human’s attention (and that you might actually want a human to pay attention to you!). How to “stand your ground” against cranky old cats half your size.

Well, we said we wanted him to go on furniture…

We don’t know much about his background. He’d been running around a neighbourhood for some months, outside in winter, before the cat rescue people were able to trap him and bring him to the shelter. And he was there 4 months before we adopted him. I suspect his home before that wasn’t the best-est ever.

Gus has come far, but has more to go. I look forward to seeing the cat he becomes.

Mac

While pondering Gus at the cat shelter (while I was smitten, Jean was dubious), Mac–who had been sleeping–jumped up to greet us with a “Hey, how about me?” attitude.

How could we resist?

Mac was a one-year-old sprite, mostly white with a few black patches. He’d been found stuck in a tree, and when rescued, the volunteer was able to carry him all the way to the shelter; he just stayed calmly in her arms. Mac was a Gus opposite, not only in colour but temperament: bold, unafraid, friendly, adventurous, chatty.

A one-year-old cat is still quite active, making him not really the ideal match for a 15-year-old cat. But as a compromise (?), we ended up with him, too. Despite Gus and Mac’s opposite personalities, they’ve always gotten along with each other. (They were in different rooms at the cat shelter, and only met at our house.)

But Mac was happy to teach Gus all he knew

Naturally, Mac adapted quickly. As already noted, Zoe accepted more quickly and easily than we’d expected–I think she found him kind of entertaining at first. While we were distracted for months trying to get Zoe and Gus to tolerate one another (as they do now), we probably didn’t give Mac quite enough attention. We’re trying to make up for it. (Particularly as Mac will pester Zoe when he’s bored, which she does not find in the least entertaining!)

Ready for action. Always!

Because given his age and temperament, Mac flourishes with a lot of attention. He taught us to play fetch with him (only the second cat I’ve ever had who will bring a ball back). When errant chipmunks came in the house, he proved himself a great hunter. Since winter, he’s had to make do with “hunting” Da Bird wand toys and some nifty animated toys like Hexabugs. I’ve also been training him to get used to going in the carrier, traveling in the car, and being on a leash. He’s proven a quick study on all counts, so he should be able to get outside in the nicer weather in a controlled fashion. (I don’t want him running off, getting stuck up another tree, and winding up somebody else’s pet.)

Mac has caught the Hexabug!

(Yes, he is micro-chipped. Still.)

He’s not as cuddly as you might think, but he is the easiest cat imaginable to pick up, he does sleep with us each night (very politely, down by our feet and not up on our heads), and he loves to rub his white fur all over our clothes, especially if they are dressy. And every once a while he will plunk himself down on your lap for a short sleep.

Showing off his battle scar (it’s really hard to clip Gus’ claws…)

Mac has a fully formed character, but some maturing to do. He’s a very nice boy now; I expect he’ll become a lovely older cat. Maybe even develop some cuddles.