UPDATED! Pandemic Diary: June 29th, 2020

Today is Day 106 of my self-imposed isolation, since I started working from home for my university library system since March 16th, 2020. The weekend before last, while taking out the garbage to the nearest bin at my apartment complex, I was surprised to find a dragonfly stubbornly perched on the outside door frame of my apartment:

I leaned forward to peer at its closely, and it did not fly away. Ironically, that is the closest that I have come to another living being in three whole months! (Although I have visited with my elderly parents and my best friend, practicing the proper social distancing guidelines of 2 metres/6 feet.)

We up here in the Canadian province of Manitoba (population 1.272 million, the majority of whom live in and around the Winnipeg area) have dodged a bullet so far: only 324 cases of COVID-19 in total, no individuals currently in hospital or intensive care, and only seven deaths so far in the entire province:

Manitoba has been spared the worst of the crisis (so far)

Compared with the absolute clusterfuck that is currently happening down in the United States, we Manitobans have been truly lucky (the following image comes from a recent New York Times article that outlines the spread of the coronavirus from its first cases, documenting how the U.S. has fumbled its response to the crisis):

Newly-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, June 9th to June 23rd, 2020 (source: How the Virus Won, The New York Times)

The border between Canada and the U.S. has remained firmly closed to all except essential workers such as nurses and truckers hauling goods, although a few incredibly selfish and stupid American tourists have been let into the country by using the “Alaska loophole” (if they lie and tell the Canadian Border Services agents that they are driving through Canada to Alaska, apparently they cannot be forbidden from entering Canada). The RCMP has already issued tickets to U.S. tourists discovered in places such as Banff, Alberta.

I have settled into some sort of a regular daily workday routine: getting up at the same time each day, having a shower and applying deodorant (even through there is nobody around to smell me), getting dressed, brewing a large pot of black coffee, and settling down in front of my home computer to sign into my work email and my university’s virtual reference desk software, to face the day. Committee work continues despite the pandemic; some days I have as many as three or four back-to-back virtual meetings using Microsoft Teams or Cisco Webex.

I have decided to take a “vacation” from blogging, except for sponsored blogposts for Sinespace (although I find that I have started backsliding on my resolution, making more blogposts lately about Second Life, which has become my preferred means of escape from the pain, suffering, tragedy, and farce of the real world).

And, as someone who routinely went out a restaurant at least once a day for meals, I have discovered the joy of cooking for myself as a result of the pandemic. I keep things pretty simple: pots of homemade Weight Watchers zero-point vegetable soup, baked potatoes with salsa, Hamburger Helper lasagna, Kraft macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, brown rice with a can of heated-up Campbell’s Chunky cream soup poured over top (Butter Chicken and Corn Chowder work well for this). I have even made my first attempts at baking (homemade biscuits, which turned out not too bad with some margarine and honey).

And I have actually lost weight! I have taken in my belt at least two notches over the past three months. I credit two things: not eating any fried, overly-processed restaurant fast food since mid-March (no French fries!) and deliberately not buying junk food as part of my pandemic preps: no popcorn, no potato chips, no chocolate, no ice cream. (I had bought a bag of chocolate chips as part of my pre-pandemic shopping in February, in order to bake cookies, only to stress eat the entire bag one evening. I simply cannot keep away from it if it in the house, so I simply don’t buy it.)

I had bought three large bags of skin milk powder as part of my pandemic preps, and I have discovered I quite like the taste of reconstituted skim milk powder. The taste somehow reminds me of a milkshake, so I mix a large beer mug of this milk with a teaspoon of vanilla extract and three teaspoons of sugar to make a “milkshake”, the only “junk food” treat I permit myself sometimes in the evenings.

I have not set foot in a retail store for three months (except for one early-morning visit last weekend to my local Starbucks, wearing a cloth mask as required and following all the social distancing protocols, to pick up a tall blonde roast, which I enjoyed on the deserted patio outside, where each table was clearly demarcated by tape on the concrete to indicate isolation zones). I order my groceries online via Wal-Mart, drive to the store to have the back of my car loaded up by the staff there, and drive home without entering the store. I call in my prescription renewals and have my medications delivered to my door. I have absolutely zero need to go shopping, or set foot in a store or mall.

And so it goes. I don’t expect my situation to change significantly until there is a viable vaccine, and that is going to take at least another twelve months, if not longer. Everybody knows that, given my underlying health conditions which put me at risk of a severe, possibly lethal, reaction to infection by the coronavirus, that I will be among the very last people to return to working on my university campus. And, by and large, I have accepted that social distancing and all the other precautions are going to be a constant part of my life for the foreseeable future.

My university has already announced that all September classes will be conducted remotely online. An information literacy course for undergraduate science students, which I and my librarian colleagues will be team-teaching, will also be done completely online. It’s the first time we have ever offered a for-credit course as opposed to shorter, in-class orientation sessions for students. I expect that I will be very busy over July and August, working with another librarian on three weeks of content for this fall term course, as well as other projects to which I have been assigned.

I have been enjoying my self-imposed vacation from the blog. It’s been great to just give myself the permission not to obsessively write about every single piece of news about social VR and virtual worlds that comes my way (and, quite often, I don’t even have to go looking for it; it often comes to me now!). I have been reading through my backlog of murder mysteries, exploring Second Life, and venturing outside to enjoy Canada’s warm, all-too-brief summer.

My avatar standing next to the dance floor at Frank’s Jazz Club, listening to the music stream

UPDATE 11:17 p.m.: Well, I suppose I asked for this. One of the regular members of the RyanSchultz.com Discord, itoibo, cheekily posted the following picture:

LOL! Come to think of it, that could indeed be why he was hanging around!

Pandemic Diary: May 21st, 2020

Well, according to the calendar, I am now in day 67 of my self-imposed isolation in my apartment, working from home for my employer, the University of Manitoba Libraries. I have not set foot in a supermarket since March 16th, and I have not set foot in a pharmacy since January 30th, choosing instead to have my groceries and prescription medications delivered when I come close to running out. Aside from a few short trips to my office at the university to pick up some papers, my office chair, my Oculus Rift VR headset (as an emergency backup), and my keyboard and wireless mouse (also as backups), I have stayed at home and helped flatten the curve.

I consider myself fortunate to live in a province (Manitoba) where, to date, we have only had 290 cases of COVID-19 so far, in sharp contrast to the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, and the sea of red that is the United States:

We here in Manitoba have truly benefited from the fact that we live in a relatively geographically isolated area of North America, while the coronavirus pandemic hit other parts of the world first, giving our provincial and city governments valuable time to prepare and implement strict social distancing restrictions. While Canada’s chief public health officer has admitted that they should have closed the borders sooner, Canada is in a much better position overall than many other countries, particularly the United States, Russia, and Brazil, which have seen a surge in cases due to haphazard or even non-existent government responses to the crisis.

I have already explained, via this blog, that I have several underlying health conditions at the age of 56: I am significantly overweight, and I have hypertension, type II diabetes, and asthma. All four conditions (which, of course, are interrelated) put me at much higher risk for a severe, possibly even fatal, case of COVID-19 if I should become infected with this novel coronavirus. And it means that I will probably be among the last group of University of Manitoba Libraries employees to return to the campus. I could be in self-imposed lockdown until there is a vaccine.

I have made peace with this fact, and I have now settled into a kind of routine in working from home, becoming more comfortable with virtual staff meetings held in Webex and Microsoft Teams (our university seems to have largely abandoned its use of Zoom).

The librarians of the Sciences and Technology Library are currently hard at work developing a for-credit university course in information literacy for undergraduate science students, which is to start in September 2020. The University of Manitoba has announced that all its classes in the fall term will be taught remotely, and the head of our libraries system has told us that she does not expect us to return to our physical library offices before January of 2021. The science librarians had been originally planning to deliver our information literacy course in-person and in the classroom, but we are now pivoting to package and deliver the course remotely using Webex.

As part of my little one-man crusade to destigmatize mental illness, I have been honest and up-front with my blog readers about my own struggles with depression and anxiety during the pandemic. In addition to taking antidepressant and anti-anxiety prescription medication, I also have biweekly sessions via telephone with my psychiatrist. On the whole, while I still have some bad days, I am doing pretty well.

You might be interested to learn that, in addition to the above-mentioned supports, I have also entered into a peer mentor/support relationship with a friend of a trusted friend, who has experience as a peer counselor in a healthcare setting and has worked as a volunteer at a telephone crisis hotline in the past. We actually meet up every couple of weeks or so in my Linden Home in Second Life!

I log in as my avatar, she logs in as her avatar, and we have a conversation using voice chat. This is an opportunity to get things off my chest and gain another person’s perspective on my mental health issues, and where I can even talk how I sometimes use Second Life to cope with my self-isolation, without having to provide the kind of contextual, background explanation I would need to make to a real-world counselor! I can also ping her via Discord anytime I feel I need to vent in a safe, supported space.

This person is currently considering setting up a peer listening/support service in Second Life, and I am a sort of guinea pig for her, a test to see how well that would work. She’s also pretty new to Second Life, still working her way up the steep learning curve and getting her bearings, and I have shared many of the things I have learned from my 14 years of experience in SL with her—like the concepts of alts, furries, Gorean role-play, and the absolutely critical importance of ankle lock 😉 .

So, how are you holding up during the pandemic? Feel free to join the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, where we have a fairly active #coronavirus-chat channel, or just leave a comment to this blogpost. I’d love to know how you are doing!

Pandemic Diary, April 20th, 2020: Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

I wake up this morning, day 34 of my self-imposed isolation in my apartment during the coronavirus pandemic, feeling more than a little tired. I have been sleeping very badly these past two weeks, and struggling with insomnia and the resulting fatigue.

Today is a research day (we librarians get ten of them per academic year, to pursue “research, scholarly works, and creative activities” as our collective agreement states, because as members of the faculty union we have an opportunity and an obligation to pursue research). I plan to use the time to prepare for my Virtual Germany presentation on social VR, and edit the first draft of a journal article I hope to publish on the lessons learned from my earlier, suspended research project, a poorly-scoped, wildly overambitious plan to build a three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website, using Sansar as a platform.

Since Sansar’s near-death experience, which would have put that research project into jeopardy, I realize that I have to focus a critical eye on the financial stability, profitability, and long-term survival prospects of any future social VR platform I choose for any future research project. This is something that libraries have to do every day when choosing software such as integrated library systems (the software that handles things such as the acquisition, cataloguing, and circulation of books, etc.).

In Sunday afternoon, FROG*, my arts and entertainment group, which in the pre-pandemic days used to meet once a month in each other’s homes to plan outings to participate in Winnipeg’s vibrant arts, cultural, and entertainment scene, set up a Zoom meeting, just to have everybody get in touch with each other and see how everybody is doing:

We used the free version of Zoom, which automatically disconnects a group of three or more people after 40 minutes. We were having such a good conversation that our host generated and emailed out a second invitation, to meet for another 40 minutes! We also made sure to model our cloth masks to each other…

These women (I am the token gay male in the group) have been friends for over twenty years, and this Zoom meeting was salve to my wounded soul. I am an extrovert, someone who tends to get energy from other people, and opportunities for that have been sorely lacking over the past month. This was the first time I had ever used Zoom outside of virtual work meetings at my university, and we agreed that we would do this biweekly for the duration of the pandemic.

Sunday evening, I participated in a second Zoom meeting hosted by the Out There Winnipeg LGBT2SQ+** Sports and Recreation Group. One of the members had purchased sets of interactive online games from Jackbox Games, which uses Zoom on desktop, and requires a mobile device such as an iPhone as a game controller. We played a couple of lively rounds of Patently Stupid, which can best be described as a cross between Pictionary and Shark Tank:

We followed Patently Stupid with a round of Trivia Murder Party, which was very cleverly designed and programmed by Jackbox, with many “deadly” challenges for those who failed to answer the trivia questions correctly. This was my first time joining the Out There group in Zoom for their Games Night, and it was great fun, and it cheered me up immensely.

So, Aretha Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? feels like a very appropriate theme song for yesterday.


*Yes, FROG is an acronym. No, I am not going to tell you what it stands for. The name’s origin is shrouded in the mists of time, and the members of my group prefer to keep it that way 😉

**LGBT2SQ+, of course, is an inclusive, umbrella acronym which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Two-Spirited (i.e. indigenous and gay), and Queer or Questioning. The plus sign at the end is for anybody that doesn’t feel they fall into any of the previous categories 🙂

Pandemic Diary: April 19th, 2020 (Please Do Not Worry About Me)

This morning, I am reading a story from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune newspaper, about an Ironman triathlete in his thirties (clearly healthy by any standard, and fitter than most people) who very nearly died from COVID-19.

Coronavirus survivor Ben O’Donnell (source)

If this is not a warning that the young and healthy are not immune to COVID-19, I don’t know what is. And, as someone who is not-so-young and definitely-not-so-healthy, it is worrisome. I cannot get this virus. I will not get this virus, even if I have to self-isolate in my apartment until there is a vaccine (which is estimated to take 12 to 18 months, if things move at hyperspeed).

Many of you who are reading this blog have reached out to me to express your concern. I want to assure everybody that I am coping as best I can under the circumstances. Yes, it means that some days I will not lie and say that everything is fine, because frankly, some days are rough.

But I will continue to do the best I can to take care of myself, and reach out for help when appropriate. I check in with my psychiatrist who prescribes my anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications biweekly, and I have now entered into a second counselling relationship with a friend of a trusted friend, who has experience with peer counselling in a healthcare setting and has worked as a volunteer at a crisis hotline.

If things get bad (and by “bad”, I mean that my chronic clinical depression makes a serious and long-lasting resurgence), then I will do what needs to be done, go back on sick leave from work, and focus on getting better again. I know the drill; I’ve had it happen to me before and I will get through this. The last time I went on sick leave for depression, I was away for two-and-a-half years, but I fought my way back (with the help of virtual reality, which I firmly believe got my neurons firing properly again) and I have every intention of fighting just as hard if the blackness and bleakness descends upon me again.

Back then, I wrote:

I’ve been under a doctor’s treatment for depression since my mid-twenties, and I probably would have benefitted from seeking treatment even sooner than that. At times, my episodes of depression have been so severe that I have had to go on extended sick leaves from work. I’ve even been hospitalized twice when I was at my very worst. I have had to work very hard to crawl back from the edge of the black pit of despair, more than once in my life.

I first got my Oculus Rift headset back in January 2017, when I was on sick leave for depression from my job, and my life was feeling pretty bleak. Shortly afterwards, I also got the Oculus Touch hand controllers to be able to handle objects in VR.

I have no scientific proof, but I do believe that using that VR headset regularly—creating art using TiltBrush and Oculus Medium, using apps like Guided Meditation VR and Nature Treks VR, and interacting with other avatars and exploring new experiences in High Fidelity and the then-closed Sansar beta—was indeed a beneficial factor in my most recent recovery from depression. The best way I can describe it was that VR got my neurons firing again!

Some would no doubt argue that too much use of a VR headset is isolating, which I can understand if you are only playing solo games, or spending innumerable hours immersed in VR. However, in many games, and especially in most social VR spaces, you are often interacting with other people, which would counteract the isolation aspect somewhat. I also strongly recommend taking the time to build up your tolerance to VR, starting from sessions as short as 10-15 minutes, and building up slowly from that. I am a little concerned when I hear about people who boast logging 5, 6, 7, 8, or even more hours at one stretch in VR. Everything in moderation is the key here.

And when you’re too depressed to set foot outside your front door, it can sometimes be easier to slip on a VR headset to visit people and places! No need to get dressed up, or to put on your “happy face” to face the world. There have often been times in the past when I have felt extremely anxious, and I was able to load up the Nature Treks VR app in my Oculus Rift and relax on a calm, sandy beach lined with swaying palm trees, listening to the pounding surf, or just put myself within a mountain-ringed meadow of wildflowers, watching birds and butterflies. Much cheaper than an actual flight to a vacation spot! And you can revisit any time you like, with very little fuss.

I do find it ironic that the empty space I cleared in my bedroom to use my wireless Oculus Quest VR headset is now piled with canned goods and other pandemic preps! However, I still have my trusty original Oculus Rift VR headset, which I still use almost daily. In fact, I even brought home the Oculus Rift and Touch from my work computer (purchased for my suspended research project), sitting in its original box in the middle of my messy living room, and I can honestly say that I have an emergency back-up unit in case any part of my current Oculus Rift/Touch setup fails on me! (The cable attaching the Rift to my high-end gaming computer seems to be the thing that gives out first, according to various user reports.)

When I went to pick up my upholstered office chair last week to soothe my raggedy ass (link is quite safe for work), I also took home my work PC’s ergonomic keyboard and wireless mouse, in case either of those on my personal computer goes kaput on me while in self-isolation, Yes, I have worn through a couple of keyboards and mice in my day. At the moment, I have literally rubbed off the letters on some of the keys on my Microsoft ergonomic keyboard! Good thing I am (almost) a touch typist.

One final note. And I am going to put this is boldface type to make it extra clear:

I use this blog to vent.

In other words, this is an outlet for me. If I am having a bad day, you will most certainly hear about it. This does not mean that I am in any imminent danger of self-harm. It just means that I am complaining about things that are going wrong and how I am feeling, just the same as I would complain to my best friend or my Mom or my shrink about having a bad day.

Some people (in those oh-so-far-away pre-pandemic days) would go to the gym or to the bar and complain to their workout friends or their drinking buddies. I complain to my internet community: to my Discord server, to other Discord servers I belong to (and believe me, I keep bumping up against that 100-Discord-community limit all the time!), to the Second Life community forums (everybody knows Vanity Fair is Ryan Schultz, honey!), to my social networks like Twitter and Reddit…you name it. I have outlets, and I know how to use them. I’m sure you do too, if you think about it.

If what I share here on this blog concerns and worries you, and if you choose to reach out to me to check that I’m doing okay, God bless you for your thoughtfulness and kindness. But please, be assured that I know what I have to do to take care of myself. It’s been learned through 56 years of trial and error, sometimes the hard way, but I have learned.

So please don’t worry overmuch about me if I do vent here. It’s just steam and a whistle from a kettle, and the water has been boiling at quite a pace this past month.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

Stay safe and stay healthy!