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January 17: Space to Dream

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Day 352. The first five days of 2021 were peaceful. Trump hid in the White House. I did my part by ignoring his ugly mug and the news in general. I focused on my life in front of me, existing minimally online. These winter days passed in a simple, joyous haze, like the temporary bliss of a snowglobe spinning before the inevitable shake-up required to get things moving again. I enjoyed the time spent with family, anticipating a great return to normal life. Soon I’ll have a long winter holiday. In another universe, I may even have visited another low-risk China region, where it’s warm in the South, such as Sanya’s beaches. Then S died, and 2021 got real.

I hadn’t been in touch with S for years, but an old mutual friend from my teenage years sent me the article: a hotel fire, a few days in hospital struggling, and then they were gone. I heard a tale of ups and downs– a glamorous stylist and party legend who hit some pretty low lows before coming up as 2021 struck, only to be consumed by a freak fire. S had basically run a community center in their Cooper Street apartment in Ottawa in the ’90s, being one of the only of us that had their own place back then. We’d go out dancing half the night, or all night, and then go back and crash on their couch and floor, next to empty bottles of cheap sherry, tables littered with accidentally confiscated lighters from a night out. Looking back at photos from the time, I was clearly a kid, the same age or younger as some of these students I now teach, but lightyears older in life experience and street credibility. Streetwise, but totally out of our depth, dealing with adult dynamics and situations beyond our experience. I’ve realized in the West that we grow up fast and young, for better or worse. I knew you as Steve when I was a kid, and the world of 2020 called you Sasha, RIP Sasha. Your sense of humor, fashion, elegant and graceful dancing, and razor-sharp wit helped shape who I am today. You live on, in part, every time I write a good line – so I’ll try to nail one for you. 

After Sasha died, things started to speed up. I was looking forward with some trepidation to the Georgia Senate runoff election in the US. As unlikely as it would be, there was a chance the deep South would elect its first Black senator and first Jewish senator, the youngest since Biden was elected in the ’70s. It was a long day, watching, Tuesday the 5th, and by the following day, it had been called: The Democrats had done the impossible, won both seats, tying the Senate and making the new VP Kamilla Harris the new tiebreaker. The Grim Reaper of 500 bills, including humanitarian relief to everyday people, Mitch ‘the Turtleman’ McConnel had lost his majority leader position. Biden would get a fair crack at passing relief, sensible COVID strategies, reenter the Paris Climate Accord, and get influenced by the progressive wing to elect a sensible cabinet and work towards a green new deal. It felt like a bit of hope. It felt good. My heart beamed with solar punk opportunities.

The next day was wild, I woke up and saw that thousands of yahoos had stormed the US Capital buildings in Washington in facepaint and tacticool gear, unmasked and screaming, chanting for the murder of VP Pence for voting to certify Joe Biden’s transition on January 20.

No matter how bad yesterday looks right now, it will look worse when more information comes out.

The riots at the capital changed the conversation. Mitch, Pence, and losing Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler decided to find their “backbone” at the 11th-hour. ‘Honest Mitt’ Romney gave an epic takedown of Trumpism speech. “We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning,” Mitt said, speaking truth to power as no other republican dared to do. “What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the president of the United States. Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy. They will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history. That will be their legacy.”

The media portrayal of this as a riot is naive.

The Vice President, Speaker of the House, the next executive, and the vast majority of all senators and congress members were in the same room, with the capital police dropping the baton. Intruders pressed through the halls, getting so close to the evacuated congressmen that a plainclothes cop had to fire at an unarmed woman to hold back the mob. There could have been a bomb (later, several pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails were found), and there could have been a chemical weapon or weapons in those backpacks just a hallway away from the only people with the power to deny Trump his ability to continue as president.

Officers should have utilized deadly force the second they attempted to breach the building, but they took selfies with them instead. The double standard between BLM peaceful protests and the entitled White Power Riot of the KKKoup is heartbreaking and dangerous.

AOC, hopefully, future president of the people, said she felt radically unsafe going to the congressional hideyhole, knowing some in the room were Nazi-Trump sympathizers and would both report her location and make opportunities for her to be hurt, kidnapped, or killed. Bernie Sanders was on TV talking about how there will be an investigation into rumors republicans offered protesters official tours the day before, helping them obtain detailed knowledge of the buildings, hidden rooms, and safe spaces. GOP leaders who refused to mask up during lockdown have now infected five congressional reps.

I get accepted into the prestigious MFA program for creative nonfiction. I just need to find the money. I made a budget- if I am really tight, really strong, and work really hard; I can afford to take the MFA program while I pay the new house mortgage and pay back the family loan for the house. It’s a lot, all at once, especially in this climate, but if I can keep going, I’ll come out of this pandemic with new skills and new purpose and doing more than just surviving, although some days that’s all I can do, and it’s enough. I really want to push for it. It’s a “me thing” in a sea of doing everything for everyone else. So against all odds, I have to dream big and gotta make it happen. I have my reasons.

I think to all the friends I got back in touch with this year with joy. I shrug off the ones I lost, mostly in China, who didn’t like my book/blog/diary/project. So many people have been dicks, but — I remember this: “you will never be criticized by someone doing more than you, only someone doing less.” I read it again and again, and then am ready to move on.

I’d go into more detail, but I don’t much feel like writing. It’s been hard, trying to be in my own space, so I’ve taken lots of notes but don’t feel like writing them down yet. In the riots, I think of the woman who was shot and later died, a US war veteran and MAGA supporter. They’d been fed lies for months from Trump that his win had been stolen from them, and not just him, but most of his party had supported his crazy conspiracies. This tension had been inevitable. Capital security had reacted slowly and with kid gloves as the protestors were mostly white. By the end, five people had died: the woman from a gunshot, a man who accidentally tased himself in his own balls until he died while trying to steal a painting of Thomas P. “Tip” O Neill from a hallway, a tragedy that in no way is humor in any way. Another who was stomped to death while wearing a ‘don’t tread on me’ t-shirt, and two others, one a capital police officer. The footage came out over the next few days, showing how scary and violent the protests were. One clip showed protestors crushing a capital city cop in a door while screaming and chanting “USA, USA.” It is all so dumb, so mindless, and so distracting from the actual crises facing us, such as a global pandemic, a global environmental disaster spiraling out of control that no one could have written it. 

An aide close to Trump reported that his staff was rattled that he was confused, why no one else was as excited as he was to see his Stupid Coup raging through the capital. Apparently, it took an intervention with his daughter Ivanka to convince him to finally call in the national guard and clamp down on the protestors. I saw a clip of them, on the ground, wearing a Camp Auschwitz shirt, screaming, “why are you doing this? You’re treating me like an f—ing black person.” Another woman, crying as it appeared she was wiping her face with an onion covered towel, saying she was shocked to have been pepper-sprayed; all she was doing was an armed revolution of the capital and against democracy. The memes were golden: the Florida man who stole the speaker’s podium, the “Qanon Shaman” in his appropriated tribal face paint and buffalo hat.

Days later, security has stepped up for Biden’s inauguration. In 20 states, governments have mobilized the national guard to prepare for armed insurrections and uprisings across the country as of January 20 approaches. Moving trucks have come to the white house. Trump made another insane speech from the Alamo about border security and Mexican COVID. “The Alamo’s Battle was fought between the Republic of Texas and Mexico from February 23, 1836, to March 6, 1836. The Mexicans won the battle, killing all of the Texan soldiers inside the fort.” It was a fitting place for “Trump’s last stand,” as he railed gonzo, a senseless speech that only reinforced how out of touch to the genuine suffering and the crisis of Americans he was.

It was cathartic to see aides carrying boxes of his oversized ties out of the capital. No matter how big the boxes, part of them always seemed to stick out awkwardly, like doggedly tired tongues. What a ride it’s all been.

I’m looking forward to a little bit more boring news days if it’s possible.

He appealed for “peace and calm” in a brief scripted portion of his speech, saying, “now is the time for our nation to heal,” he said, and then reversed course by launching into a lengthy tirade of jabs and attacks on Democrats and tech companies.

Trump had all his social media accounts deleted and banned, making his phone a colorful brick, and that’s a bit of a relief, the quiet. Chatter on alt-right site Parler warned of new attacks, and so tech companies removed it, making it harder for new people to join. A hundred or so arrests were made: it turns out the Qanon shaman needs organic food in prison, and so he got his. Even though they couldn’t be bothered to give toothbrushes to kids in cages at the border. So much is unfair, but still, we go on.

There was pressure for VP Pence to invoke the 25th and remove Trump, and it didn’t work, so congress has sent articles of impeachment for sedition against him up to the Senate. He’s made history again: first us president to lose the popular vote twice, lose the house, the Senate, and get impeached twice. 

An interesting split screen of the day: Biden on TV promising to train many non-medical officials to assist in the largest, most comprehensive vaccination program in history, promising to vaccinate 100 million people in the first 100 days of his presidency. Trump’s first meeting in days is with- Mike Lindell, the MyPilow CEO, who arrived with notes and talking points about martial law. Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York who used to close clubs and party venues when I often played shows there in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, cannot help Trump with his second opinion, as he is a material witness. It seems, in fact, no one wants to take the difficult job of defending the president, and he has no legal strategy. Experts suggest he may simply try to pardon himself, but that the Supreme Court would not accept it. We will see. His fall from the highest job, propelled by the same narcissism that got him, there is a historically ugly stain on his country and distracting at the worst moment, when we need to focus on literal crises that are existential threats to human life. It is so much better to be a good, normal, simple person than that kind of vacuous black hole of a star. I do; feel vindicated for the choices I’ve made and the places I’ve gone.

The fact that it’s possible, from Day 1 of the new administration, to release a coronavirus plan, this straightforward is the most damning indictment of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response imaginable. These are the obvious ideas I’ve been suggesting for a year. This was the playbook that he didn’t– couldn’t — read. The most powerful country in the world has been a headless chicken for years, and tomorrow they’re unveiling the new head. And then the hard work can, finally, begin. As a Canadian in China, I still know this will be good for me, for everyone.

In a day, Trump will be gone, abandoned, and without purpose, like a rudderless vessel, a Rudy-less, floundering Seadoo. Until then, I approach TVs like I approach the men’s bathroom at school: averting my eyes from anything misshapen and colorful. It’s gonna be shit. If I ignore it soon, it will go away.

A news headline from the Independent catches my attention: “Man who sprained his ankle and got lost in the Alps led back to safety by a mysterious cat.” Oh my glob, it’s like an interpretative dance routine of my life. Is the cat named Shaolin? Steve the Viking asks. She just might be.

I caught a bad cold in the hotbox of closed windows and sneezing and coughing in the classroom last week. I managed to tough out teaching Friday and Saturday. I started to feel ragged about halfway through but kept talking to a minimum, lozenges burned through, and I knew it would all be over soon.

It made me think of how much of a baby I am and have always been when I suffer when I’m sick and how often I get selfish when I feel that way. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Pain, anger, fear, and discomfort are all messages, like emails: to act upon or ignore. Sometimes the best thing we can do is ignore them— and reflect later, so I made it through a day worth of work sick, whining, discomfort, and I was ok. I am gonna keep going as long as I can because the way forward is a victory of inches. I will ignore the pain, and I will keep putting one foot in front of another until I’m where I need to be. That’s how winning happens. That’s how we get through this.

I have two dogs, Benben and Hachoo. Benben is old and stubborn and does things his way. Hachoo is young and clever and often listens to me. Since the pandemic hit, we don’t take them out as often, so we have a puppy pee pad on the balcony. Hachoo can go through the screen door and will faithfully use the puppy pad. Benben will sometimes go out the door but will pee or poo anywhere he feels like it on the balcony. Sometimes he won’t even go outside and just pee and poo in the house. It’s difficult looking after Benben, but I’m glad Hachoo is still doing her part. 

Hachoo uses pads too well; she sometimes pees on anything that looks like a pad. So I have to wash our little carpets often.  

You might ask, why bother putting out a fresh puppy pad every day if you have to sweep up and mop up Benben’s leftovers every day anyway? I think it’s because it’s important to have a sane and measured plan, even if it’s only half working. Having structure and order keeps me on track, and that keeps me putting one foot in front of the other. That in itself is important.  

I see this as being quite similar to managing a pandemic. Even the most well-intentioned of us often does something wrong or less than ideal, and there are half of us just going around making a mess of things, but not having a plan is much worse than having one that is only half followed. We must strive to be our best and always do better. I try to stay optimistic, and even as I share my experiences of how well we did in China, I don’t want to see to be pushing our excellence in anyone’s faces. Instead, I feel we have a lot to learn and share by studying the different approaches, and I think I have learned and grown so much as I’ve traveled the world this last decade and learned a lot of Chinese cultures, and it has prepared me well for the pandemic. I feel this pandemic if looked at correctly, could help us prepare for the looming climate disaster. Perhaps we can turn things around. We have to try, and so, I doggedly do my best.

More than 4000 people in the US died yesterday. The USA’s total COVID death count is approaching 400,000 (18,014 in Canada, 4635 in China, and 2 million worldwide). More than 4000 people got COVID in Ontario in the last 24 hours, and in about ten days, we’ll see the Christmas surge translate into deaths — even as the new UK, South Africa, and Brazil strains, more virulent, are becoming dominant. I realize now that we shouldn’t be calling them “UK strains,” for the same reason we hated Trump saying, “Wuhan Flu,” or “China Virus.” They are all over the place, and just because we discovered the so-called UK Strain in the UK, experts suggest it might have originated in Italy. We call it B.1.1.7. The South African variant is called 501.V2. The Brazil strain is called “VUI – 202012/01.”  Experts say they stay up late studying these new variations, and although they are much easier to spread, passing more easily through ill-fitting masks, more likely to be airborne, long-lasting, and smaller than a human hair. Because they are less likely to be caught in respiratory droplets and more likely to float in the air, indoor, poorly ventilated activities like working close together or shopping in a stuffy store is now more dangerous than before. We don’t have evidence that these strains are more deadly, but experts say a more contagious strain is actually worse than a deadlier strain. After a month, a 50% more deadly mutation would result in 150% more deaths than the baseline, but a 50% more contagious strain will cause 11 times the number of deaths over the same period (assuming a 5-day average doubling rate).

I read a sobering and bracing reminder from a doctor friend here in Ontario: “The majority of the spike in the latest cases in Ontario are from people galavanting around at Christmas and leaving their health regions. We are filling field hospitals in parking lots now, even in major cities like Ottawa. The pediatric wards are full of adult Covid patients; surgeries are being canceled or delayed. The ICUs are full, and we are shipping patients out of their hometown to anywhere there is an ICU bed. All the while, frontline, and essential workers are holding the line. The stress of this is unreal, nothing we ever thought we would face. We will soon have to enact something called the triage document- where we choose who lives or dies based on who gets ICU and who doesn’t. I have close family members that wouldn’t make the cut based on age/ health factors etc. Trust me when I tell you that you do too. It’s time to get real here, team- stay home. Stop traveling anywhere. Stop socializing. Period.”

Ontario is in a big lockdown again, curfew, schools closed, an attempt to get ahold of their own infection. People are grumbling. More to come.

In the first study of its kind, Statistics Canada is mailing out test kits to tens of thousands of people to study coronavirus’s prevalence in the country.

A few arrests are made at an antimasker protest that turns violent as an officer is assaulted. The tides are starting to turn.

We took Ethan to the Zoo, even though my throat was feeling rough and I was starting to get something— I punished myself for letting my guard down — but life happens, and it was a sunny day, and he was happy with the animals around.

Everyone is excited about the vaccine as a return to life, but we’re told that we will need to wear masks even after being vaccinated. For one, we might still be able to carry the virus in our body, becoming carriers for the unvaccinated. But I wonder, what damage having the dormant virus in our body could wreck of itself: the sterility questions? Organ damage? Is this only a byproduct of serious COVID, or could the dormant SARSCOV2 virus cause some of this also? I hope not, but something to study. What if the reinfections of this novel virus, like Herpes, come back when stressed? If it lies dormant in the body, but the vaccine only lasts for a few years– will we start getting sick one day, wondering why, and then find out it’s COVID? We really don’t know, so I feel we’ll be wearing masks for a while still. Michael Jackson comes into my mind now and then, masked and with one glove, something odd then, now making perfect sense, as my dad pointed out, he often goes out shopping with one glove, to touch the outside world things, his clean hand free to scratch his nose. MJ was ahead of his time. I never saw the Neverland damning documentary; maybe I should watch it on this break– now that it looks like we’ll be staying at home for sure, we’ll have lots of time.

The first person in China on record died of COVID in over eight months. We’ve had about 150 cases on the northern border shared with Russia and a small outbreak in a district in Beijing. The news just in is that 102 infected from “Super spreader” in Jilin (along the Russian border). A patient infected with imported COVID-19 (from Russia) in Beilongjiang carried out marketing activities for the elderly in two villages, creating the super spreading event. Now the government has told all people here not to travel for a holiday, and this includes rural workers in cities who typically only had the ten day break to see their families in a whole year, for the second year in a row, they will give up this break for the good of their country. There isn’t much grumbling, and it’s just what we have to do. It’s interesting to see the cultural differences, to be a Canadian in China, and see the comparisons. Before 2020, I learned to be a lot more resilient and independent living in China, away from my family, and in a foreign country. The Chinese culture, so focussed on education and cherishing both children and old people, rewarded sacrifice and selflessness — so different from how I grew up. It’s been educational, inspiring, challenging, and interesting, but this year, transformative in ways I haven’t fully processed yet. 

My old poet friend from Dalhousie, Melissa sent me a message congratulating me on the release of the book, I told her it was a hot mess, but I was already working on the next one. I think if I keep my expectations low, it’s healthier than hoping it will sell a million copies and leave me desperate to repeat its success. It’s much healthier to think of it as very much my best work so far, but a long way from the best I can do. That’s why I’m still learning, working, writing. That’s why I’m still here. There’s a big difference between rushing to turn out the first thing that looks like a finished copy (as I often have to do with my diary, or I’d never publish anything with all I have going on around me and swirling in my mind) and sitting on my hands for a decade fretting while my drawers are stuffed with unfinished drafts (ask my drawers: there’s trilogies and more stuffed inside there…waiting). Now I have a bit of experience with both. Both could be successful. The former reminds me of Salvatore, a great storyteller with 60 books to his name who uses adverbs too frequently, and Rothfuss, with 2.5 published books and a lot of anxiety to finish his long-awaited trilogy amidst an army of excited fans. Or Martin and the Game of Thrones– does he even want to bother finishing them at this point? After the TV show took over and tanked with a rushed ending, it went from a cult following to the biggest show on the planet to … forgotten overnight. And what are D&D (writers) doing now? I’m going to go ahead and say Martin is going to die with 2 GoT books to share, and they will be well received, and D&D will stumble for years before finding their groove again. I have been wrong, but not lately.

I’m playing Cyberpunk 2077 a lot. With developer CDPR losing 40% of their worth, the launch was a disaster, about a billion dollars in stock lost, investors crying bloody murder, and the industry darling’s reputation in tatters. Several law firms have launched class-action lawsuits. They’ve been delisted from the Sony PS store. Their own Polish government has launched a business and ethics inquiry into their practices — the same government whose president received the Witcher game as a cultural wonder for the Polish people. “Bioware Magic,” all over again– it’s important to realize that because they’ve done amazing things before, it was the culmination, the brew, of talent, hard work, and a great plan, and the time needed to do it right. You can’t remove any of those components and hope for lightning to strike again. The incredible gameplay demo was revealed to have been faked, and by all anonymous developer accounts, this game was a couple of years away from being finished. I asked the universe for the chance to beta test the game, and in a strange twist of fate, I got it — we all did. It’s got elements of masterful storytelling and a lot of rough spots. Why does it feel like that could describe my book also? Probably because it’s true. Part of the weight of being a poet is seeing the truth in front of your eyes in millions of synchronistic ways and then struggling to make those comparisons make sense to anyone else.

I feel like the fine line between elation at getting a book deal “effortlessly” (at least on my first try, there was a bit of effort involved in the editing and release) and being surprised to publish working copy as a diary—- and spending years endlessly rewriting lines looking for that artistry of time, is a tightrope the MFA program will ask me to walk, will force me to try. With any luck, I might find that delicate balance. It’s a fantastic challenge that I look forward to—a worthwhile way to spend my pandemic years indoors.

Tomorrow is Monday, my last week of classes before a five-week break, and I am so tempted to call in sick. Just a quick text message about a throat infection and they’d be happy to give me a couple of days, even the whole week off work, but part of me wants to lean into the pain, be uncomfortable, not give up because it is in the challenge and adversity that I find myself growing, improving and finding myself. I will grin and bear it, teach with a mask on, making use of some good resources, videos, and my mic, and it’ll get done, and the break will feel all the better after.

We finished eight seasons of the TV series Homeland, wow can I ever relate to the main character, always screwing up my family life in the moment for the promise of doing some big life-saving work abroad. It’s made me spend more time here at home and less time fighting those big battles on Twitter and Facebook. We watched The Wilds, a YA drama that shows teenage girls trapped on a deserted island and their struggles, lives, and psychology, and it felt like a modern take on the shocking insight into teenager lives and the lives of young women that we saw years ago with “Kids.” It was difficult to watch at times but felt important because it clearly had something to say about the regular and normalized violence against young women in our society. I felt at times uncomfortable watching it, thinking about my many stumbling encounters growing up, and am only glad I honored my spirit and left the zany adventures of Doctore Danish, existential detective, and DJ in the rearview mirror– it was one thing to break hearts, disappoint and hurt feelings when I was a young man, but it would be a whole other thing to continue doing it as an old man.

I am happy, at least for the life that I’ve made for myself in this pandemic. As Dave Chapelle said recently, this COVID pandemic makes us examine our choices closely, really marinate in them, where we live, who we live with, what we do, and what we surround ourselves with. There are few distractions, few escapes. A hard, sober, long look is what the doctor ordered. The last decade feels crystal clear in a life full of colorful mistakes, especially the seven years since I left Canada and started over again. Reboots are hit and miss, but mine was pretty smooth. Everyone deserves a second chance, I know, because it took me at least a dozen before I found something new, novel, and satisfying, and I had to cross the world and start over again to find it. I still have hard days, and I still question this winding path, but it’s mine at the end of the day, and I have to love where it took me.

I’m not sure how, but somehow Elon Musk eclipsed the towering wealth of Jeff Bezos and has become the world’s richest man. Nobody is really explaining how, after hemorrhaging cash with Tesla and SpaceX disasters, he’s used the pandemic to double his wealth, but he has pledged to use half of it to help save the Earth and the other half to get humans to live on Mars, as an insurance policy from a life-killer asteroid or severe pandemic. At times he’s an eccentric and annoying space-Karen, denouncing public health and the validity of this pandemic. Others– he’s a futurist and visionary, discussing android neural net interfaces and interplanetary space travel. From a problematic family in South Africa, he’s a controversial guy, but if he can really use his fortune to both save our climate and get us into space, I’d say he’s found a pathway to redemption. It’s really why we’re all here, isn’t it? To learn, to grow, to dream, and to realize them?

I hear a song in my mind that I heard in a warehouse 25 years ago. An old friend, Natasha C– who was way cooler than me when I was just a runty little kid, was singing, MCing a darling underground ball, and I can hear her voice as clear now, all of a sudden as if I was there all those years ago. It’s amazing how clear this unreleased moment, her song, could slip through the corners of my mind and the decades of my life and remain so crystal clear, and I wonder when the last time she sang it was. In the space, we dream.

Many opportunities are afoot, and if we meet the year of the Ox on its own terms: hard work and methodology, we will see great gains.

Until I get the chance to really put the time in, here I am, half-assing it again, a beta testing diary, shared with the world.

Be safe, be well, and keep on keeping on.

K

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