Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Taking the vax pass for a spin

After categorically stating (and repeating) that there was no way, no how that Ontario would require proof of vaccination to access certain public spaces, Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontarians would be required to show proof of vaccination to access certain public spaces. The change of heart itself was no surprise to most Ontarians, who’d by now witnessed many similar policy pivots, but its timing was: early September. That is, before the COVID case count was terrible and inevitably about to get worse before it could get better.

Ontarians were then surprised again to find that from roughly that point on—before the policy actually took effect, and despite the start of school—case numbers have improved. Just slightly improved, and still not as good as last summer, but definitely on a downward. Something that it not happening everywhere in Canada.

The avg. of daily COVID-19 cases has fallen from early September
And locally, the numbers have been a little better than the provincial average (after our “fun” Delta spike in June).

So Jean and I have been getting out there. A little.

I wanted to see the new Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings—mainly because I was a fan of the lead actor, Simu Liu, from Kim’s Convenience. But I also liked that it was an origin story, so it wouldn’t matter that I wasn’t versed in all the intricate details of the Marvel universe. That it was both a critical and box office hit also seemed promising.

I figured that seeing it at the Cineplex VIP theatre would be good, because then we could get an actual meal. Made it quite manageable to go there after work for the early evening showing, even though the VIP theatre is kind of across town from where we live.

COVID protocols in place when we went: They checked for vaccination proof (and mask wearing) at the entrance to the building. Then at the entrance to the VIP theatre, they did contact tracing. Each theatre was limited to 50% capacity; when we bought our tickets in advance, we selected our seats, and the system then blocked off the ones to either side of us so we knew no one would be sitting there.

Mind, the movie had been out for about four weeks by then, and it was week day, so though the 50% capacity of that rooms was 35 people, I think there were only about 10 there? And nobody else in our row.

So we felt pretty OK about unmasking to eat our dinner. We don’t get to the VIP theatre often. I still love the novelty of ordering food and wine (!) at my extra-comfortable, reclining seat. My edamame, fish taco, and Kim Crawford Sauvignon were all quite fine. Jean also liked the edamame and his Malbec, but was a little less impressed with the pulled pork.

As for the movie, I found it really fun. Jean complained about how many fight scenes it had. He’s right—so many fight scenes! Normally, this would bore me. But I thought these were quite well-choreographed fight scenes that did move the plot along. It was too bad Simu Liu didn’t get more funny lines—Awkwafina (who was great!) got most of those. But he looked good. I was diverted. Nice night out.

The following Monday, we went to see a different sort of film at a different sort of theatre (but with basically the same COVID protocols to follow): I’m Your Man, at the local art cinema, The Princess. The premise of that one is a woman scientist tasked with testing a humanoid robot designed to be the perfect partner for her.

Tom, the robot, is endowed with artificial intelligence that causes him to adapt to whatever his “partner” wants, though in case he has a partner who’s skeptical of the whole idea and trying to maintain objectivity. As he dials down the romantic gestures and ramps up the practical assistance he can provide, she gives him more mind, and then more heart…. It was quite engaging and thought-provoking and—though Jean thought they could have done even more with the premise—we both enjoyed it.

Then later in the week, we decided to try some more indoor dining, back at S&V Uptown. It’s our third time there since they moved to uptown Waterloo, and again we were really impressed. In terms of consistent food quality, I think it’s the closest we’ve come to Verses—the only issue is the tendency to sometimes over-salt the sauce, at least to our taste. But even that never ruins a dish, because nothing is ever drowning in sauce.

They had just launched their Fall five-course menu, and that’s what we had, again with shared paired wines (1.5 oz each per serving). Fried oysters, halibut with mushrooms, beef cheek, sponge cake…

(I also finally got to wear my new pantsuit.)

Meanwhile, in another bout of optimism, I’ve acquired tickets to a number of events at Centre in the Square for the coming months:

  • Blue Rodeo (in December)
  • Letterkenny Live (in February)
  • Billy Joel’s The Stranger by Classic Albums Live (in April)

These all depend on lifted capacity restrictions—which the government has just announced (albeit not yet for restaurants and gyms). So we’ll see how that goes.

What’s next?

I will mention that the rapid testing program that I blogged about previously has been shut down by the Ontario government. Not entirely—it can still be used by the small businesses it was originally intended for. But Communitech’s extension to community groups and individuals was making the province look bad, I guess, so they put a halt to it.

Meanwhile, there is some opinion that wider deployment of rapid tests are key to ending the pandemic. Until the Ontario government comes to agree with that, here are a few options for getting them:

  • The tests are available free to businesses, who can then make them available to their employees. So talk to your company about it. (If you own a business, get some on that basis.)
  • The Canadian Shield now sells them. About $10 each, so not exactly cheap, but better than the $40 each at Shoppers Drug Mart.
  • Travel to a place like the UK or Nova Scotia, where they’re widely available and cheap (though I have no idea if it’s just as easy for tourists to acquire them)?
Play safe going out (rapid tests) and going in (condoms)
Nova Scotia public health campaign

Now for a bit of trivia: What would you guess is the most highly vaccinated age group in Waterloo region? The over 80s, perhaps?

Nope. It’s the 18 to 29s. Followed not far by the 30 to 39s. (Frankly, my age group are a bit slackers here, at possibly the lowest rate of “at least one dose”?)

Percent vaccination coverage for WR Residents by Age Group
Source: Waterloo Region COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force

The kids are all right—and they’ve earned their way into bars, restaurants, gyms, and concert halls.


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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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Covid conundrums

I had started this post a while back, on the difference between the people who will do everything the COVID rules you say you can do (dine indoors, drink at bars, get a tattoo, hang out at the mall, attend a large indoor wedding), and those who mostly try to follow the guidelines—which are to avoid gathering with people from outside your household, and to stay home as much as possible.

And that the guideline people can get kind of irritated with the rule-following people.

Shannon Proudfoot tweets about people in restaurants
From journalist @sproudfoot

And then I was getting into the fact that it didn’t help that the rules themselves were so illogical:

  • Outdoor weddings are capped at 100 participants, while more dangerous indoor ones can have over 200 (being based on a percentage of total capacity).
  • Movie theatres cannot project movies to any number of masked, distanced patrons, but can serve alcohol at their venues to unmasked patrons, up to 50% capacity.
  • Theatre companies cannot film plays at their venues, under any protocols, but can rent out those venues to companies to film movies or TV shows.

Not to mention the fact that different parts of Ontario kept shifting into different “color code” areas, and that the meaning of those color codes kept changing, so who could keep track anymore anyway?

And that while I feel that I’m mostly in the guideline camp, it is weird to find myself with the rule people on one issue: wearing masks outside. Because I generally don’t do this. I do if I’m standing in line, having a longer talk with someone outside my household, and on more crowded streets. But otherwise, no. I do try keep moving and always give other people space. I figure, outdoors, that should be enough to keep us safe.

But this annoys some guideline people, as to wit: Even when you’re outside you should still be masked, which I’ll quote part of:

It was a very busy weekend for walkers in downtown Waterloo this past weekend and most walkers had no masks. Perhaps there should be more enforcement by bylaw officers.

Carolyne Wagner, Kitchener

The first thing I want to say to this person? 

“There’s no rule that you have to wear a mask outside!”


But since then, my attempt at light-heartedness seems a bit off, because things are really terrible now and about to get worse. And now the rule muddle has simplified, somewhat, in that all of Ontario is moving to “gray color code” for at least four weeks.

A lot experts think… These latest measures just aren’t going to work. For the worst parts of Ontario, Toronto and Peel, nothing much changes—they’ve basically been in this state of closure since October or so. How changing nothing going to make case numbers go down instead of continually up? Are those areas going to benefit that much from people not being able to go to other parts of Ontario for lunch or a haircut?

While the Christmas lockdown was effective, this one isn’t as restrictive (notably, schools aren’t moving back to remote, despite evidence of a lot of spread there), and that one wasn’t maintained nearly long enough. So we’re starting this one at a worse state than we did that one. So too little, and starting too late.

It’s all… super depressing. I will not get into extensive political critique myself, but I do encourage you to read Bruce Arthur’s summary (a 5-minute read):

Remember the choices Doug Ford made when ICU doctors are making theirs

(And just say, next time: Vote different! Well unless you voted NDP, Liberal, or Green. Then maybe vote the same.)

The only thing that makes me feel any better these days is reading about vaccination. Yes, it’s been too slow, it’s clunky, it’s uneven, there have been mistakes, but nevertheless, it’s the only thing going semi-well, and where the numbers actually improve daily.

Chart from John Michael McGrath, TVO—this is one case where rising numbers is good!

Chart of vaccination rates, Ontario
And since there’s been so much fretting about Canada’s relative performance, Jean pointed me to this chart, from Information is beautiful:
% of population vaccinated, Canada in 8th spot

14% (and rising) with at least one dose isn’t going to get us out of the current crisis, but at least it puts us on the path.


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Food delivery and takeout services, unmasked

Though the provincial medical advisory panel advised against it (literally predicting that will be a “disaster”), most of Ontario has been allowed to reopen to some extent, including Waterloo region. As we near a year of this “hiding in our basement” thing, and vaccines are finally rolling out in higher numbers, it would just be annoying to get infected now. So I’m trying to stay cautious. I’m finding the lure of haircut harder to resist with each day of increasingly shaggy hair. But I’m good with sticking with takeout over indoor dining (now allowed, with up to 10 patrons).

This Friday’s takeout target was Public Kitchen & Bar, where they do a very nice pot de foie and delicious fruit crepes, among other things. A difference in reopening is that we waited just inside their doors for our order to be assembled, instead of for them to deliver it to our car. They have an open view of the kitchen, and peering in to that, I couldn’t help but notice that none of the four or five cooks in there were wearing a mask.

And that seemed… odd. But I’ll get back to that later.


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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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Not an open and shut case

Both Ontario and Toronto hit record numbers of COVID-19 cases this week, yet Doug Ford, it seems, wants the shuttered restaurants, bars, gyms, and cinemas to reopen. Is that really wise?

Nobody much cares what I think about it, but I can’t help thinking about it anyway. So now I’m inflicting my thoughts on you.

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Pandemic vacation in Quebec

That it did wonders for my mental health, there’s no doubt. Despite the constant consideration of risk to physical health in everything we did.

Jean wanted a vacation that actually felt like a vacation, which to him, meant getting out of the province. We weren’t up for flying, though, and of course wouldn’t have wanted to go to the country to the south even if we were allowed to, which we weren’t. In a week, the only “outside Ontario” destination that was possible was Quebec.

We did start in Ontario, with a couple days in Ganonoque. Then it was three days in Quebec City, and two in Montreal to finish. In the days leading up, I became obsessive about reading the daily Covid case counts—which at that point, were actually pretty good. And while away, Ontario trended up a bit, but Quebec was still on a downswing.

It did feel like a vacation. Though one unlike any other. (Including the slightly uneasy feeling about blogging about having managed a pretty good vacation in these times… )

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Local patio

Loloan Lobby Bar was not one of those restaurants that offered takeout during the shutdown, so we did prick up our ears when we heard that it would reopen once patios were allowed. In this, they were aided by City of Waterloo deciding to block off Princess Street for pedestrian use.

Our experience with Loloan in the past has been a bit of mixed bag. We’ve never had a bad meal there, but have had a number where the food didn’t seem quite outstanding enough for the price. On the other hand, we were fairly blown away by their New Year’s Eve dinner. As that was a fixed menu, Jean suggested that maybe we weren’t good at picking the right things at Loloan.

Their online patio menu had a fairly minimal number of items, but they looked good. They were not taking reservations, so we decided to just head there right after work on a not-rainy Wednesday.

The first surprise was their notice that they weren’t taking any credit cards, just debit or cash. Interesting choice.

The second was that the cutlery we received, once seated, was distinctly… plastic (and wooden, for the chopsticks). The glasses, however, were glass.

And the menus were literally hot off the presses: we had to wait for them to be printed (not excessively long, or anything). We didn’t have trouble choosing items of interest from the short array. We went with pork satay and pork / vegetable dumpling appetizers, lemongrass cod with rice and cucumber salad as the main, and the only dessert, which combined a variety of tropical ingredients. We shared everything.

The list of wines by the glass was modest, and Jean asked which one might work best with the variety of food we’d selected. The waiter returned with a Chenin Blanc that wasn’t even on the menu, but was fantastic. Later, when I’d finished a kir, they returned with an off-dry Semillon/Sauvignon blend that we also really enjoyed, and that was also not on the list. Nice touch.

The two appetizers were very delicious, though also served in more “disposable” containers. The waiter at one point commented that a lot of their dishes were still in storage… The mains and dessert came on actual plates, though, which we were very excited about. Even better, they were also delicious! This time, we did feel we got value for the money.

The side dish part of the main course (with my main dish, Jean)
Dessert included coconut sorbet, mango gel, and lychee gelee

I’d had the impression that Princess Street was supposed to shared by several restaurants, but Loloan seemed to be the only one operating this day, and they had quite a few tables available. I noticed they did some of the cooking outside the restaurant, on a barbecue, and that all the staff were wearing masks.


Speaking of masks, I had recently tweeted this tidbit:

I know it could just be correlation, and not causation, but it was still great to have three days of 0 new cases locally this past week.

I haven’t done a ton of shopping, but for what I have, I am finding that almost all customers are respecting the mask bylaw. What confounds me a bit are places where the salespeople are not. For me that’s only been two places, but others report…

What do you do about that? Because I feel like something should be done. I’m good with not confronting another customer who’s not wearing a mask. But the staff? I realize they could claim the same “medical exemptions” that customers do, but hey, how about wearing a face shield then (as I saw one grocery worker do, and I’m cool with that).

And, I also appreciate that it’s a lot harder to for them to wear a mask for a whole work shift than it is for me on my short shopping trip. Some masks are more comfortable than others, and would be nice if employers (or the government?) supplied those.

But before we can come up with solutions, we have to draw attention to the fact that there’s a problem. And I don’t know how to do that.


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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.