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!

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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 18th, 2020

So I snapped a selfie on my way to the nearest garbage bin at my apartment complex this morning:

I am wearing one of the cloth masks that my Mom made for me (she also knitted the scarf I am wearing in this picture). I really miss going to my Mom’s for Sunday dinner.

It has now been a full month since I started self-isolation in my apartment, having received permission from my employer, the University of Manitoba Libraries, to work from home since Monday, March 16th.

How am I doing? Well, not well. But not badly, either. I’m still slipping back and forth between a few uncomfortable emotional states: anxiety, depression, anger. I am taking Lorzepam for the anxiety, but I know that I can’t keep relying on it when my nerves are bad, because I could become dependent upon it, and my psychiatrist tells me that I could suffer rebound anxiety as a result of using it too often. So I reserve the Lorazepam for when I feel especially anxious, which has happened a few times this week.

As for my depression, I can usually judge how bad things are by how many unwashed dishes I leave on my kitchen counter. At the moment, I have a week’s worth of dirty dishes piled up on the counter. It’s a sign that I am not doing so well, when I start to put off chores like that. So I need to pull my socks up.

I know that I am not the only person who is struggling. This week I read an article from SELF magazine, titled 17 Totally Normal Things to Feel Right Now, According to Therapists, and I could relate to a whole lot of them. Here’s the list, along with some quotes from that article:

  • I feel burned out. “Think about it: Every aspect of adjusting to a “new normal” demands energy from you, whether that’s the bandwidth you’re expending keeping up on the news or the weird learning curve of doing your job remotely. Meanwhile, so many of the ways we typically recharge are off the table right now: seeing friends, hitting up happy hour, going to the gym, or whatever self-care activity of yours that the pandemic has derailed. ‘There are so many more things draining us than things fortifying us right now…That’s a recipe for burnout right there.’”
  • I feel angry. “You probably don’t need me to tell you that there are a lot of things to be angry about right now, whether you’re frustrated at people who aren’t taking this seriously enough or have a lot of feelings about how the pandemic is being handled on a structural level.”
  • I am spiraling about what might happen: “The uncertainty of the pandemic—and the long-term impact it will have on both a personal level and a larger scale—is one of the most common themes the therapists I talked to have come across in their work. That should come as no surprise to anyone going through a ton of anxiety right now; there is just so much we can’t predict…’Anxiety rises due to the fear of the unknown, and right now, many things are not known…I have been hearing people worrying about running out of food or supplies. People are afraid that they will lose their homes or cars due to being out of work.’ The list goes on. The important part to remember is that most people are grappling with uncertainty right now, and it’s normal to feel terrified.”
  • I am struggling with working from home. “Transitioning from a typical work setup to working from home has caused a lot of stress, angst, and frustration for a ton of people.”
  • I am mourning canceled events. I miss my monthly arts and entertainment group meeting (although we are scheduling a Zoom meetup on Sunday). I miss the older gay men’s dining out group. I miss being at work and being around my coworkers and the students and faculty at my university.
  • I want a hug. As someone who is self-isolating alone in my apartment, I can’t even remember the last time someone touched me.
  • I feel guilty about my relative safety, security, and privilege. I was much more physically and logistically prepared for this pandemic than most people I know. I have a couple of months of food on hand, and 3 months’ worth of all my prescription medications. I don’t need to leave my home for anything except absolutely essential trips or emergencies. But I do feel guilty that other people, who wouldn’t, couldn’t, or didn’t prepare, are struggling, perhaps even suffering. Hell, there are people on this planet who are facing this pandemic without access to clean, running water.
  • I am grieving. “While it’s true some people undoubtedly are dealing with the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, therapists are noticing grief in other ways too. Most people are grappling with some kind of loss…whether that’s the loss of a job, your freedom, your feeling of safety, or your vision of how your life should be going. All of that can trigger a deep sense of grief, though many people don’t recognize it for what it is.”
  • I am feeling inadequate about my productivity. “‘One issue that I’m seeing is people feeling guilt about not being productive enough while at home in isolation..From day one after lockdown orders, many clients felt that they were wasting time and failing miserably at the transition to working from home. There is also pressure to learn languages, take courses, master finances, and do all the things. Productivity porn is very loud right now.’ That noise can be difficult to drown out, so don’t feel bad if this is something you’re struggling with. ‘We live in a nation in which many of us are accustomed to engaging in activities centered around thriving…Unfortunately, much of that focus must be shifted to surviving right now. Be kind to yourself as we shift and refuse to be guilty for not being productive.’
  • And sometimes, I just feel numb. “With everything going on, it might alarm you to wake up one day and realize you feel…nothing at all. That’s to be expected too. Even in the most chaotic of times, it’s impossible to be on emotional high alert 24/7. ‘I think of it in terms of adrenaline…You can only have adrenaline coursing through your veins for so long until the body has to reset and simmer down.’ Same goes for emotions, especially the longer this goes on.”

On top of everything else, I feel exhausted, and I have been struggling with insomnia. Once again, a night of restless sleep detached and inactivated one of my expensive LibreLink blood sugar sensors, so I have had to replace it before it was due to expire in 14 days. This is the second time this has happened since I started using this system, and it is frustrating.

Even just writing this blogpost seems to have brought me down, by making me realize just how much I am trying to cope with. Small wonder I am struggling. It would be overwhelming to anybody.

So I am just going to keep on keeping on, using this blog as my pandemic diary. I know that I have supports in place (anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication, talk therapy, my social network) to keep me safe, grounded, and sane. We don’t know how long this public health emergency will take to pass. We don’t know when the restrictions that have been placed on all our lives will start to be lifted.

But we do know that this will not be forever. I have to hold on tight to that belief, putting my faith in all the doctors and scientists who are working to create a vaccine to end this nightmare.

Stay safe, and stay healthy!

UPDATED! Coronavirus Pandemic: What You Are Feeling Is Grief (And What You Are Seeing Is Plagiarism)

I make no secret of the fact that I have been struggling emotionally during the coronavirus pandemic, which is why I found the following five-minute YouTube video to be comforting. Psychologist Dr. Sarb Johal tweeted it with the following comment:

We feel the world has changed, and it has. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. Here’s what’s going on and what you can do.

Now, this is not something that I haven’t already heard from my psychiatrist and other people. But there’s just something about the way Dr. Johal puts it.

If, like me, you are struggling, you need to set aside five minutes and watch this:

Thank you, Dr. Sarb Johal! I thought the least I could so is repost this video, since at the moment it has a criminally low 44 views! So get out there and share this. Thanks!

UPDATE 10:45 p.m.: One of my regular blog readers, Brinlea, just shared with me the following article from the Harvard Business Review: That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, an interview with renowned grief expert David Kessler (thanks, Brinlea!).

Hmmm, this article was written March 23rd, over three weeks ago, and Dr. Johal posted his YouTube video just six hours ago. And the HBR article is pretty much the exact script of what Dr. Johal said in his YouTube video, right down to the examples used. Even the text of Dr. Johal’s tweet (which I quoted up top) is lifted verbatim from the article.

Hmmm… I think at the very least, the good doctor should have credited where he got his information from. Read the Harvard Business Review article and then watch Dr. Johal’s video and you’ll see what I mean. And I wouldn’t even have known about it if it weren’t for Brinlea.

So I will take back my earlier praise. This is still useful information, engagingly imparted, but this is also plagiarism. Dr. Johal basically lifted, almost verbatim, what David Kessler said in his interview with the Harvard Business Review. As a librarian who teaches proper citation style to university students, this is a major no-no.

Not impressed. If you’re going to steal another person’s words, then have the guts to cite your sources. (Do not fuck with the librarians, we will catch you out!)

And if you are looking for some properly cited sources of information about mental health during the pandemic, here is a blogpost I keep updated—to which I have now added two excellent articles from the Harvard Business Review.