America is burning

I’ve always pictured Minnesota as being as close to a Canadian province as you’ll find in the United States. It’s northern, it’s cold, and it’s nice.

So watching the city of Minneapolis set ablaze by protestors this past week – with the utterly surreal sight of a police station set on fire – I couldn’t help but think that if nice Minneapolis is on fire, than what chance is there for the rest of the United States?

I can’t escape the conclusion that the United States of America is finished. Once the bulwark of democracy, a country to where millions around the world aspired to live, the U.S.A. is now, just like that police station in Minneapolis, a burning, twisted hulk.

The death knell for American began to ring on Nov. 9, 2016, when voters elected a deranged, misogynist, racist, lying TV reality star as its leader. You don’t come back from something like Donald Trump.

It’s been one long horror show since. The events of this past week may be the worst in the Trump presidency, which is really saying something.

By now, you’ve seen the horrific murder of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man, at the hands (or knees) of a white cop, who blithely applied pressure to the handcuffed man’s neck until he died, gasping for breath. Captured on cell phone video, the look on the cop’s face – one of total indifference as Floyd gasped out “I can’t breathe” – was more frightening than any Hollywood horror movie. In an unusually appropriate move, the cop and three others involved were all fired, and the kneeling cop charged with something called third degree murder. Charges are pending against the cops who watched and did nothing.

That Minneapolis, and many other cities, would erupt in rage was entirely expected. That the rage would spread across the country was also predictable. What nobody saw coming was the level of violence, the rampant destruction of property and looting that went on for three nights and counting.

The TV commentators, and more than a few supposedly impartial reporters, are blaming the violence on decades of abuse suffered by the black community, and a long tragic history of blacks being killed by white cops. But that’s only part of the story. Watch any of the videos of the riots/protests, and you will see thousands of young white people. Perhaps emboldened by the ubiquitous COVID masks, privileged white kids from the ‘burbs are in the thick of the protests. Add to the mix far left radicals, a sprinkling of anarchists, white supremacists (who want to inflame racial tensions in the U.S.), and thousands of just lousy human beings, and you’ve got a melting pot of chaos.

At times like this, Americans turn to their president for reassuring words. Not this time. Donald Trump, the barely literate leader, tweeted messages with incendiary comments like “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, and threatened to unleash the army and “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.” At a White House press conference on Thursday, Trump was expected to speak about the violence – but instead spoke about pulling the U.S. out of the World Health Organization and criticizing ‘JI-nah’. He then walked away. Not a word about the existential crisis facing his country.

Why has he been so quiet (Twitter rants notwithstanding)? Simple. He doesn’t know what to say. He is surrounded by sycophants who won’t tell him the truth. He is almost incapable of putting together a coherent English sentence. There has never been a president in my memory who is worse at reading prepared statements. Some, like Barack Obama, were masters at calming the nation. Even the amiable dunce George W. Bush was better. When reading prepared speeches, Trump sounds like a man who barely knows how to read, which may be true.

It’s a heck of a world we live in right now, isn’t it? Crashed economies, disease running rampant, and the most important democracy in the world collapsing upon itself.

So-o-o- … anybody see anything good on TV?

Robocops

As the chaos in the U.S. spreads, the various law enforcement agencies are hauling out the heavy artillery. I think this is a huge mistake.

The scene from every city in the U.S. features a line of faceless, heavily armoured cops in a line (or, more recently, wading in the a crowd, clubs a’ swingin’). This may be counterintuitive, but I think the cops and the national guard should be much more lightly armed.

Look at the cops. Do they look like human beings, or Robocops? Nothing embodies the great, big, evil state more than a faceless cop. I’ve seen many images of protesters screaming into the faces of the cops. Any why not? Behind a helmet and a shield and a gas mask, it’s easy to forget that you’re talking to a human being. It’s also easy for troublemakers to assume that the armoured cops can’t be hurt, so they’re fair game.

From the cops point of view, who can blame them if they feel like cracking skulls? Just like a helmeted football player, if you are dressed for battle, and feel invulnerable, then you are much more likely to wade into a crowd. Check out this clip of Atlanta cops swarming a black couple in a car. Check out how they are dressed, and how many there are. (Also notice a white girl happily driving past, waving at the camera.)

Putting a human face on cops works. Check out this video, of New York cops taking a knee in solidarity with protesters, to cheers and handshakes. That doesn’t happen with a Robocop.

At some point, this madness with peter out. Until the next time, when the heavy artillery will be brought out of storage, and this whole sorry scene will repeat itself.

Scenes from a Mall II

Here in Peoples Republic of Alberta, life is returning to some semblance of normal; or, if I may employ the most overused expression of the day, the ‘new normal’.

If this is the new normal, then let me off this train today.

Welcome to the new normal

This week, my wife and I ventured to the cavernous colossus that is West Edmonton Mall. The government of Our Most Benevolent Leader, Chairman Jason Kenney, has declared that retail outlets may reopen, so we went to the mall to check out the post-Coronapocalypse landscape. It is not pretty. I was reminded of a Simpsons joke (everything reminds me of a Simpsons joke) where the slogan of the Monstromart is ‘Where shopping is a baffling ordeal’.

To follow social distancing guidelines, WEM has placed thousands of arrows on the floor, pointing shoppers in the only acceptable direction. Within minutes, we ran into a problem. We entered on the first floor, and wanted to go to the second floor to visit a store we thought was open (it wasn’t). When we cut across an area that had no arrows to get to an escalator, we were stopped by a masked security guard, who asked us where we were going. We told her the name of the store, and she told us we would have to follow the arrows to get to a different escalator, even though there was one not 25 feet from where we stood. She was polite enough, but completely devoid of common sense. I was ready to turn around and go home, but I gritted my teeth and followed the arrows to the escalator about 20 stores away (how else do you measure distance in a mall?).

The escalator was out of order. I resisted the urge to call on Paula Blart for an explanation.

The mall has a North Korea feel to it. Terrible pop music still blares at maximum volume, echoing eerily through the empty halls. Every now and then, a soothing female voice reminds you to follow the arrows, wash your hands, and that ‘we’re all in this together’. We stopped for a coffee at a food kiosk. The worker was behind a plexiglass shield, and wearing a mask. She could barely hear our order, and I could barely hear her. Naturally, she got our order wrong.

In the food court, the few people we saw were a study in contrasts. A cluster of old people were sitting a respectful distance apart, no doubt grousing about the situation. None of them were wearing a mask. A young girl waiting in line for food, wearing a mask, subtly stepped back whenever anyone came with a meter of her. I saw a young dad walking his little son, maybe six or seven years old. The dad wasn’t wearing a mask, but the kid was.

The whole experience was so profoundly depressing, that I have no desire to visit WEM, or any mall, until normal returns. And not the ‘new normal’; I want the ‘old normal’, where Paul Blarts don’t stop you, where you can actually see the faces of the people you are talking to.

When things do return to whatever the hell normal is, the retail landscape will be profoundly different.

The list of retailers that have asked for protection from creditors (which means you are staying open while trying to restructure your debt, known as Chapter 11 in the U.S.), or have given up and closing down is long and distressing.

The Canadian Reitmans chain – which includes Reitmans, Penningtons, Addition Elle, RW & Co. and Thyme Maternity – sought and received court protection from creditors. The same goes for Canadian shoe giant Aldo, which operates about 3,000 stores worldwide. In the U.S and Canada, Pier 1 Imports is toast. J. Crew filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 4. Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus has done the same. American department store JC Penny is also in Chapter 11, and closing down 240 stores. And in another field, car rental company Hertz has also applied.

Some of these bankruptcies are directly the result of the Coronapocalypse; for others, the shutdown was just the final straw. Some of the stores will come back, but in reduced capacity. Most others will not.

We now resume our COVID coverage …

Well, I managed one full week without mentioning you-know-what. One week is about all one can accomplish. So let’s take a quick look at some COVIDicisms …

This past week, Bryan Adams, Canada’s gift to mushy love songs, was in the spotlight for Twitter comments he made about COVID-19. Adams, incredibly, is doing a tenancy at the Royal Albert Hall in London (apparently, nobody good was available), and he went on a Twitter rant about having his concerts cancelled. Here’s what he said, sanitized for your protection:

“Tonight was supposed to be the beginning of a tenancy of gigs at the @royalalberthall, but thanks to some f**king bat eating, wet market animal selling, virus making greedy b**tards, the whole world is now on hold, not to mention the thousands that have suffered or died from this virus.”

Bryan, Bryan, Bryan. You should know what happens to celebrities who go on angry rants. The twits of the Twitterverse went on full outrage mode, accusing Adams of racism, xenophobia, etc. But he’s not wrong. It is believed that the virus originated in the disgusting ‘wet markets’ of Wuhan, China, where live animals are kept in cages until they are slaughtered for the discerning palates of Wuhanians. The story goes that a woman ate a bat that she bought at the market, and became Patient Zero for the virus. If that’s true, then China and its wet markets have a lot to answer for. But to the Twitterverse, always on the lookout for ways to be offended, just mentioning the wet market is ‘dog whistle’ racism.

If that’s true, here’s another ‘racist’ comment.

“It boggles the mind how, when we have so many diseases the emanate out of this unusual human-animal interface, that we just don’t shut it down.”

That noted racist? Dr. Anthony Fauci. I guess your degree of racism depends on how obscene your rant is.

The Kovid Kops were in full authoritarian mode in Edmonton last week. In an incident captured on video, at a modest anti-lockdown protest at the Legislture grounds, a man was hauled away by two sheriffs and a city cop. His ‘crime’ was failing to provide ID when asked. Why the cops asked this guy for ID is unknown; it’s probably just because they can.

This guy was engaging in a peaceful protest. He had a megaphone (which should be enough for a life sentence) but that’s not illegal. In fact, he was doing nothing illegal – not even breaking the social distancing diktat – but the Kovid Kops conspired to create something illegal. Not to belabour the point, but this is not too far removed from the kind of thing you’d see in China or North Korea; a guy being carried away for peacefully protesting. Premier Jason Kenney has vowed to look into it, but nothing will happen, of course. Cops are essentially immune from answering for their actions in this country. (By the way, there was a guy behind the protester who is carrying an upside-down Canadian flag. THAT should be a reason to arrest someone.)

Will it be the very last call for any of these Milwaukee boozers?

Every commercial on TV these says includes someone getting a sincere (or at last as sincere as TV commercials get) thank you. Whether it’s first responders, nurses, doctors or even the lowly stock boy, everybody is getting a thank you.

I’d like to add one more. Let’s thank the fine drinkers of the state of Wisconsin for agreeing to become the COVID canary in the coal mine. The U.S. state – whose most famous and largest city is Milwaukee, a city indelibly linked with beer – has opened all its taverns, with no restrictions. The governor, a Democrat, wanted to extend the stay-closed order, but the state supreme court overruled him. Within 45 minutes of the decision, taverns were packed with anti-social distancing, unmasked booze hounds. The photo above was taken inside a Wisconsin bar in the first hours after the bars were declared open.

So why thank Wisconsin? We should thank them for conducting a large-scale experiment. If COVID cases don’t soar in Wisconsin over the next few weeks, then opening the bars was a success. If the cases – and the inevitable deaths – go up and up and up, then maybe wide open gathering places wasn’t such a good idea. So thank you, Wisconsonites, for risking your lives to test out the veracity of the stay-at-home order and ignoring all the safety measures. Better you than us.

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed all other news to the sidelines for the past few months, including the mass murder in Nova Scotia. This would have been the story of the year in Canada, but it has been shunted to the sidelines. Fortunately, Maclean’s magazine has provided a comprehensive look at the worst mass murder in Canadian history, and the RCMP does not come out of it looking good. Read it here.

Fred Willard with Will Ferrell in Anchorman.

Fred Willard, one of the great comic actors of our time, died last week at 86. Willard got his first taste of national exposure as Martin Mull’s sidekick in the satirical talkshow, Fernwood Tonight. Never a star, Willard’s specialty was in making brief, hilarious appearances in TV and movies, always playing a guy who was happily clueless. He was at his best in the the ad libbed Christopher Guest mockumentary films Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show (his appearance as a dog show commentator who knew nothing about dogs was peak Fred Willard), A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. And we haven’t seen the last of Fred Willard; he plays Steve Carrell’s father in the Netflix comedy series Space Force, debuting May 29.

A 100% virus-free blog

The things you notice while you have nothing else to do.

The other day, I was having my daily glass of beer with my wife. (This requires some explaining. We used to split a can of beer, then graduated to an entire beer each. For some reason, we still split the cans into glasses. Classier that way, I guess.) I noticed that we were drinking our beer from souvenir ‘Batman Forever’ glasses that we got from McDonald’s. They are real top quality glasses, with elevated images of Tommy Lee Jones as the Joker. The glasses were made in France, of all places.

And they date to 1995. So here we are, in 2020, drinking beer from our McDonald’s collectible glasses.

So I went through the cupboard to see what other ancient artifacts I could find. Sure enough, tucked away in the back, were two small cups, with happy little bunnies barely visible on the side. They once contained Easter candy for the boys, and they were from Easter … 1988. Why do we still have them? They have no monetary value, and, for that matter, very little sentimental value. Why can I not just dispose of them? The boys don’t want them. I don’t want them. Until I dug around the the deepest recesses of the top cupboard, nobody knew they existed. But somehow, throwing away innocent little cups that have somehow survived 32 years seems wrong. So, I did took them out of the cupboard, put them in a box, and stored them away in the basement. The next time I see them, it will be when I am fruitlessly trying to organize the basement, at which time I’ll wonder why we still have Easter cups from 1988.

So, I’m idly checking out Netflix, and I come upon their list of the top 10 most popular items on the streaming service. On Wednesday, around 3 p.m. (yes, I’m watching TV at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday; don’t pretend you weren’t), the no. 2 most popular show on Netflix was reruns of Modern Family.

Wait, what? Modern Family is on for an hour a day on at least a half-dozen widely available cable channels, and THIS is the show that people in Canada made the second-most watched item on Netflix? They are, in effect, PAYING to watch reruns of a show they could watch for FREE on any number of channels. Really, Canada?

And speaking of Modern Family, here’s my main beef with that show. Are we supposed to believe that a smoking hot mama like Sophia Vergara’s character would actually be in love with a homely old curmudgeon like Ed O’Neill’s character? Did no one in that family ever consider the possibility that she was a gold digger, or is that a politically incorrect term these days? That marriage is as unlikely as the Donald-Melania union. And couldn’t there been at least one member of that modern family that was struggling to pay the bills, instead of everyone living in only-on-TV style accommodations?

You have to wonder about the quality of the police training in Lethbridge. This past week, on the so-called Star Wars day, a restaurant employee was dressed as a storm trooper to attract attention to the Star Wars-themed restaurant. She was carrying a replica Star Wars weapon. Some jackass phoned in a weapon complaint, and the Keystone Kops arrived, guns drawn, and forced the poor, crying, 18-year-old girl to the ground, resulting in a bloody nose. A bystander recording the event was told to leave, and the cops then drove a truck in front of the guy doing the recording to prevent any further embarrassing evidence.

Seriously, Lethbridge cops? Can you really not tell the difference between a toy, sci-fi gun and a real gun? Was it really necessary to swarm the scene, guns drawn? Are you so bored with your job that you were desperate for some TV-style action? Mind you, Edmonton cops hardly covered themselves in glory last week. In this video, a man with a knife was seen in one of those weird public washrooms on Whyte Avenue that are very, very public (all windows). The police responded to the complaint with no less than eight officers, including a police dog. The guy was shot with a bean bag gun. Hey, at least he wasn’t carrying a lightsaber.

And finally, a sad goodbye to Jerry Stiller, one of the greatest comic actors in TV history. He played not one but two of the great oddball cranks in sitcom history; Arthur Spooner on King of Queens, and most famously Frank Costanza, George’s very quick to anger father on Seinfeld. Here’s a collection of his greatest moments. (Remarkably, Stiller appeared in fewer than 30 of Seinfeld’s 180 episodes.)

Tennis, anyone? Don’t you DARE!

In Victorian times, doctors had an expression: “The operation was a success, but the patient died.” Doctoring in Victorian times was a pretty iffy proposition; once they ran out of leeches, they were pretty much stumped.

That expression has popped into my head many times over the past weeks. Yes, we’ll get COVID-19 under control, but at what cost? The damage to the economy could lead to a new depression, and the government deficits will be so huge as to be basically impossible to repay. (I’m no economist, but here’s an idea: sneak into the Royal Canadian Mint in Winnipeg after hours, fire up the printing presses, and crank out a few billion. Who’s gonna know?)

Here in Edmonton, the city’s short but frantically busy summer has been gutted. The Fringe Festival, the Street Performers Festival, the Folk Festival, A Taste of Edmonton, the Heritage Festival and K-Days have all been cancelled for this year. Hundreds of thousands of people attend these events every year, injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy. Now, all gone. Pfft!

On a personal basis, the loss of any of the above does not impact me. I’m essentially a stay-home kind of guy who regards anything other than family gatherings to be too loud for my tastes. But I feel for the city, and for the people who attend and stage the events.

I understand the reasoning. The COVID-19 virus sees a crowd of a few thousand as an all-you-can-infect buffet. But the prohibition against even tiny gatherings is bordering on panic. I know Canadians are docile people with an ingrained deference to authority. But I think a lot of the restrictions placed on our daily lives have gone a step too far.

Big gatherings? Sure, I get that. You have to close them down for now. Seniors residences, where the majority of Alberta deaths have occurred, must be locked down. (Remind me in 20 years not to live in a seniors residence, please.) But playgrounds? Children’s sports? Off-leash dog parks?

This past week, when Premier Jason Kenney moved slowly towards opening Alberta again (finally lifting the irrational ban on golf) some bureaucrats at the city of Edmonton doubled-down, closing tennis courts.

Yes, tennis! The ultimate social distancing sport. Also around the same time, the city warned people against using the stairs in the river valley for exercise, lest they incur the wrath of the Covid cops.

Now, let’s examine this for a second.

In order to get or give the virus to a fellow stair runner, you would have to pass within six feet or so of another runner, and cough or sneeze at THAT EXACT TIME, and the virus would have to travel through the air and find its way into your lungs. What are the odds? At the low end, I’d say a million to one. More realistically, let’s say a billion to one. I’ll take those odds.

At some point, somebody has to say that the odds of getting the infection from a playground or a dog park (which have mercifully been reopened) or a game of tennis are so minuscule that you can give the public the option to go to a playground or a jog up valley stairs if they wish. What the government is saying is that the public is too stupid to make a choice, so we’re going to go all draconian on everyone, dishing out fines for standing too close. (In Ottawa, the authorities there even forbade people from tapping on the glass at seniors homes while visiting. The blowback was so bad, they reversed the policy.)

So, we get it. Avoid contact with people. Stay two metres (or, in Canada, two hockey sticks) apart. If you’re sick, stay home. Message received. But let’s be realistic here. You’re not going to catch or give COVID-19 by playing tennis with a buddy, or running up stairs.

However, this still begs the question: why would anyone want to run up stairs?

There is only one other issue on the Canadian scene today – gun control. In the wake of the Nova Scotia killings, Justin Trudeau announced a ban on the sale or ownership of 1,500 types of “military style” guns. This is shocking – there are 1,500 types of military-style guns? Who knew?

Naturally, the gun lobby and their supporters in the right wing media are in high dudgeon, using the traditional complaint that gun control legislation only targets “law-abiding gun owners”, not criminals. Of course it does. At one point all mass murderers were “law abiding gun owners” – until they weren’t. And then it’s too late.

And now, some good news …

So, for a chance of pace, let’s talk about something other than Covid-19.

So-o-o-o, how about that weather, eh? Nice to have some sunshine for a change. But jeez, it’s awfully windy, isn’t it? … Watch anything good on TV lately? I’m rewatching Justified, which really holds up well. Where would we be without the ol’ boob tube, am I right? … How ya holding up? Ready to kill anyone yet, ha-ha-ha? … We’d be well into the NHL playoffs right about now. I wonder how (fill in name of favourite hockey squadron) would be doing if the playoffs were happening? … Gawd, that Trump is an idiot, isn’t he?

OK. That’s it. I tried. But there is absolutely nothing else happening in the world. Never before has the world been so completely, exhaustively consumed by one news story. Remember back before the Coronapocalypse, there was so-o-o-o much happening. Remember when Australia was on fire? Is that all over now, or is Australia just a smouldering heap of kangaroo carcasses? For a while, much of the world seemed consumed with where Meghan Markle and her hubby, Prince Ginger, were going to live. Last I heard, they decamped to Los Angeles. Please, you two, come back to Canada. I’m desperate for something – anything – to talk about. Even (shudder) royals!

Remember when all those Aboriginal groups were blocking rail lines, and the Trudeau government didn’t have a clue on how to handle it? Was that resolved, or are those trains still sitting there? Remember that crazy impeachment trial of President Dumbo J. Trump? Yep, that was only in February.

Those were the days, right?

So, with absolutely nothing else to write about, I thought I would take a slightly different Covid-19 tact – positive news.

First and foremost, the environment is making a comeback. With human activity now at a sloth-like pace, the air in some of the world’s most polluted cities is clear. In New Delhi, India, a famously filthy city, the air is clear. According to The Guardian: “In Delhi, air quality index (AQI) levels are usually a severe 200 on a good day (anything above 25 is deemed unsafe by World Health Organization). During peak pollution periods last year they soared well into a life-threatening 900 and sometimes off the measurable scale. But as Delhi’s 11m registered cars were taken off the roads and factories and construction were ground to a halt, AQI levels have regularly fallen below 20. The skies are suddenly a rare, piercing blue. Even the birdsong seems louder.”

All of the world’s most polluted cities are reporting similar results. And it’s not just the air that is clearer; in Venice, the polluted canals are now so clear, that the dolphins have returned. Thanks to the world shutdown, it appears that the climate goals of the Paris Accord will actually be reached. Accidentally, mind you, but it’s something!

And as a bonus, no more lectures from Greta Thunberg!

Also on the plus side, if somewhat less important, these are boom times for two occupations – security guards and guys who make TV ads.

Security guards are everywhere I go these days. There is such a high demand for security guards today, I hope the security guard companies (they always have names like SecureGuard, or GuardSecure, or Guys in Dark Jackets, Inc.) are not loosening their standards. I hope they have all passed the stringent security guard training course, which includes comprehensive lessons in Standing for Long Periods of Time, The Art of Stern Glances, and Overcoming Concerns About Your Life Choices. Frankly, I think it’s time security guards are included in the list of front line ‘heroes’ we hear so much about.

These are also boom times for people who make TV ads. Every product or service advertised on TV has pivoted to ‘we care’ mode. Stock footage providers (the guys who provide generic clips of doctors, nurses and old people) are really making bank these days, as are the musicians who provide the required tinkly music for the background.

So you see, it’s not all bad. And for the first time, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe in a week or two, we will be allowed to participate in our most sadly, desperately missed event – getting a haircut.

And my COVID-19 test result is …

“Open wide …”

All this week, I’ve had a cold. My sinuses were plugged like a frat house toilet, and I developed a cough that sounded like an angry harp seal. I’ve had this kind of cold many times before; it’s normally something you just endure for a week or so until it runs its unpleasant course. But this is the “new normal”, a time when we start using terms like “new normal” and really mean it. It is the time of the Coronapocalypse.

I was not worried that my ailment was anything more than a garden variety cold. I’d left the house a few times since the shut down first began, looking for any opportunity to get out of the house for a few minutes. I’ve made a few visits to hardware stores to buy paint for a somewhat overdue (is 20 years to long to wait to repaint?) sprucing up our battered house.

Watching the TV news this week, I caught a story about a Home Depot employee – at 63 a year younger than your correspondent – who died rather quickly from COVID-19. His daughter and son-in-law posted this video about the tragedy. He was a big guy, in apparently robust health and of the impression that this whole COVID-19 thing was overblown a bit, but the virus took him. He died at home, alone.

The TV reporter did his stand up in the Home Depot parking lot.

MY Home Depot. The Home Depot where I purchased my painting tools.

I don’t mind admitting that I felt a little chill up my spine. That same day, the government had announced that it was expanding the testing criteria to include anyone with a cough or runny nose, and that you could do a self-assessment online. I decided to take the test.

The test begins by asking if you have severe difficulty breathing (e.g., struggling for each breath, speaking in single words), severe chest pain, are having a very hard time waking up, feeling confused or have lost consciousness. If you pass that hurdle, you go on to the next set of questions: do you have shortness of breath at rest; inability to lie down because of difficulty breathing; chronic health conditions that you are having difficulty managing because of your current respiratory illness. All clear there, too, so it was on to the last set of questions, about fever, cough, shortness of breath, runny nose, difficulty breathing and sore throat. I answered yes to that one, and was sent to the last page of the self-assessment, which said in bold letters “You must immediately self-isolate. You may need to be tested for COVID-19.”

OK, you’ve convinced me, I told the computer. I punched in my info, and to my amazement by that evening I got a call, where I had a brief discussion of my symptoms and a confirmation that I should be tested. I was told to wait for another call, which came the next day, giving me a time and location for the test. The woman on the line told me it shouldn’t take too long, as she said the last time she looked people where only waiting for about five minutes. She told me to show up between 12:30 and 1:30 at the testing station the next day, a converted eco-station on Edmonton’s southside.

I got there at 12:45, and immediately realized that this was going to take a bit longer than anticipated. With the announcement of the broadening of testing criteria, a lot of people – and I mean a lot of people – showed up for testing. A line-up of cars snaked through the road leading up to the testing station, which is located in the drive-through location of the eco-station.

I have all the patience of a boiling tea kettle when it comes to line ups, so I had to make a decision: join the queue, or go home. Once you get into a single-lane of cars, there is no turning back. I was sufficiently concerned about the outside chance that I had the virus that I gritted my teeth and settled in for long wait.

About 90 minutes later, the doors to the testing centre were in sight. The testing location could only accommodate six to eight cars at a time, so even with the doors tantalizingly close, the wait continued.

At last, I entered the testing centre (all tests are done in your vehicle). The staff was gowned up in full protective gear, like a scene from one of those post-apocalyptic movies Hollywood cranks out with regularity. They quickly confirmed my appointment (it is by appointment only, so do NOT go there expecting to just drop by for a quick swab), and a short time later a nice young lady was jabbing a long stick of plastic down my throat. (The original detecting method, which went up the nose, has been replaced by a throat swab, considered to be more reliable.) I gagged a bit, which the technician told me was simply a sign that she was doing it right. She told me to expect results in two to five days, and that was it. About five minutes after getting into the testing area, I was done, one hour and 45 minutes after I arrived. (I can’t complain. I saw a TV report from California where people were waiting five hours for tests. Probably the same people who waited hours for toilet tissue.)

Then it was time to play the waiting game. As Homer Simpson once said, “The waiting game sucks. Let’s play Hungry Hungry Hippos”.

On Thursday, I grew a little more concerned every time I so much as cleared my throat. What if, in my defiant trips to the hardware store, I had picked up the virus? What if I had transmitted it to my wife? And what about my brothers and sisters? On Monday, a bunch of us gathered outside my sister’s window (she has dementia, and is in a locked-down facility) to wish her a happy birthday. They all noticed that I had an unusually manly voice, and I assured them I just had a cold. I didn’t cough or sneeze with them around, and we kept our social distance (not difficult with my family; we’re not huggers). If I did have COVID-19, could I have somehow shared it with them? So many questions.

By Friday, I went to my Alberta government health records – available online by signing up at MyHealthAlberta.ca – and checked my test results. And there it was – my COVID-19 test.

Result … negative.

Never has a negative looked so positive.

I can’t say that I agree with everything the various levels of government have done in this crisis – closing playgrounds and dog parks is foolishness, as is handing out huge penalties to people just going for a walk – but I have to give full marks to the Alberta government and Alberta Health for the testing procedure. Aside from the long wait to get into the testing site, everything else was efficient and professional. I did the online survey on Tuesday, and by Friday I had my result. You can’t ask for much more than that. Kudos to everyone.

By the way, I still have the cold.

Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh …

The cast of Arrested Development

Last week, in an attempt to alleviate the tedium of the Coronapocalypse, I offered some dramatic fare to help you fill the thousands of empty hours. This week, I take a dive into the much trickier realm of comedy.

I say trickier, because nothing is more subjective than comedy. You can have two people in a room watching the same show, and one person will be wetting themselves with laughter while the other will be looking at the laughing guy with a mixture of contempt and confusion. I won’t attempt to justify or explain why I think these shows are funny. Some of them are quite sophisticated and droll, some of them are awash with puns and sight gags. They just all make me laugh.

I will divide the choices into categories – network, British, Canadian (yes, it does exist) and what I will call acquired taste. I won’t get into programs that are not readily available on streaming or cable.

U.S. Network

In the 2000s, there were four absolute must-see comedies that are readily available on streaming services – Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and The Office. If you don’t like these four shows, then we have nothing further to discuss.


Cast of Parks and Recreation

Arrested Development (Netflix) broke down all the barriers and created an entirely different form of sitcom that has yet to be duplicated. (Warning: The show ran for just three season from 2003-06, but was brought back in 2013 by Netflix. You can safely ignore the Neflix years; they are a trial to watch.) Parks and Recreation (Amazon) is a somewhat overlooked gem. The opening few shows are a little shaky, but once it found its rhythm, there was nothing on television funnier and more human. 30 Rock (Amazon), Tina Fay’s gut-bustingly funny look at TV comedy, is shockingly politically incorrect by today’s standards. The Office (Netlix) is certainly the most popular of the Big Four, and when it was on, it was the best. Sadly, it remained on the air a good five years after its best before date.

The other network shows are a mixed bag. Community (Netflix), set in a community college with its sitcom students, started great but faded badly in the later years, so much so that I have never had the urge to revisit the series. The cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Netflix, with new episodes on NBC), can also be very funny, but also hit-and-miss. The Good Place (Netflix), a comedy set in the afterlife, was sweetly funny and oddly thoughtful, and would make for a good binge watch as the story is continuing. While you can’t binge watch them, the cable channel Adult Swim is worth adding to your TV listings just for the joy of watching daily reruns of the long-running King of the Hill and the brilliant, lovable Bob’s Burgers, the second best animated comedy in TV history.

British comedy

There are two essential British comedies that you can – nay, must – watch if you have not yet done so: Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Ricky Gervais’ masterpiece, The Office, both available on Netflix. Python is very much of an acquired taste and may look strange in its presentation, but it is utterly unique and one of the most influential comedies in TV history. Once you’ve watched those two gems, here are some other British comedies to check out. (Warning: Brit comedy is very loose with language, so beware if you are offended by off-color – or ‘off-colour’ – language. And if you have a hard time deciphering the various British accents, don’t be afraid to put on the closed-captioning. If you thought The Wire was tough to understand, check out some of these shows.)

Cast of The IT Crowd

The IT Crowd is a bit of an old-school comedy (on videotape in front of an audience), but it is brilliantly, often surrealistically funny in a very specifically British way. The IT Crowd stars the charming Irish actor Chris O’Dowd, who is also the star of a sweet British comedy, Moone Boy (CBC Gem), where he plays the imaginary friend of a little boy. (His IT Crowd co-star, Richard Ayoade, is the host of an entertaining travel program called Travel Man on CBC Gem, where he spends 48-hours in the top tourist cities in the world.) I am currently watching a low-key, almost melancholy comedy called Detectorists (Acorn), about eccentric small-town metal detector enthusiasts. Veddy veddy British. Still in small town Britain, but decidedly raunchier, is This Country (CBC Gem), a mocumentary about two aimless young losers in a puny village. The accents are thick as molasses, and the language is often foul, but it’s very funny when you can understand it. I highly recommend Derry Girls (Netflix), revolving around the lives of teenage girls in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’. Wickedly funny and a window into a fortunately departed world, but again, translation may be required. W1A (Netflix) is a scathing send-up of corporate culture, set in the hallowed halls of the BBC. And for something completely different, A Touch of Cloth (Amazon) is a series of 90-minute parodies of every British cop show, taken to hilarious extremes. This one is very pun-intensive in the Airplane! mode, which is why it breaks me up.

Canadian

Yes, there is such a thing as Canadian comedy. All of these shows are available on CBC Gem. Why SCTV, the greatest Canadian TV show of all time, is not available on any streaming service is a maddening mystery.

The Kids in the Hall

First, you could do worse than to watch the entire run of Kids in the Hall, the groundbreaking sketch comedy show. (It was announced last month that the Kids are reuniting for a series of new shows on Amazon, the streaming service’s first Canadian production.) Gerry Dee’s school comedy Mr. D was excellent for several of its eight seasons, but like most sitcoms it faded badly in the stretch. Dee, by the way, is great as the host of Family Feud Canada, weeknights on CBC. After those two shows, the best I can recommend are two one-season wonders. Cavendish is a weird, very clever combo of comedy and the supernatural that it appears nobody watched, which is a shame. Young Drunk Punk from Kids in the Hall‘s alum Bruce McCulloch was a Calgary-filmed comedy roughly based on McCulloch’s teenage years in Cowtown. Also unfortunately neglected.

Acquired tastes

Bojack Horseman

The following are shows that may people will reject out of hand because they are just too weird. But give them a try (but don’t blame me if you throw something at your TV.) All of these are on Netflix.

Bojack Horseman is the animated story of a faded TV star – who is also a horse – and his attempt to regain some of his past glory. That description barely begins to describe the sometimes bleak strangeness of Bojack. I’m a bit mixed on Bojack. At its best, it was weirdly compelling and laugh-out-loud funny; at its worst, it was too bleak for my tastes. Mike Tyson Mysteries is an animated series (the episodes are about 12 minutes each), starring the former heavyweight champ as a mystery solver for hire. Along for the ride is his Asian daughter, a ghost, and a talking pigeon (voiced by Norm McDonald). It’s every bit as weird as that sentence indicates, and often ends in unexpectedly violent ways.

The violent endings of Mike Tyson Mysteries are kindergarten stuff compare to Santa Clarita Diet, staring Justified’s Timothy Olyphant and Drew Barrymore as a typical suburban couple whose lives are turned upside town when Barrymore becomes undead and urgently needs human flesh, which she enjoys with grisly relish. And yes, it’s a comedy. And bloody … boy, is it bloody. But I liked it. Not enough people did, because it was cancelled by Netflix after three seasons and 30 episodes. And finally, something new. The second season of What We Do in the Shadows begins Wednesday on FX. Shadows is a mocumentary about a group of vampires living in modern day Staten Island, N.Y. The first season got a deserved 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.

There, that ought to do it. A little bit of everything, from sweetly comic to slapstick gore. Something for everyone – I hope.

And finally, the last instalment of oddities from the human body from The Body, by Bill Bryson. It’s the last instalment because I’ve finished the book.

• Despite its lavish spending, the Unites States has one of the highest rates of both infant and maternal deaths among industrialized nations. American women are 70 percent more likely to die in childbirth than women in Europe.

• The U.S. has 4 percent of the world’s population, yet consumes 80% of the world’s opioids.

• The COVID-19 virus is a punk compared to the all-time killer, smallpox, believed to be responsible for 500 million deaths in the 20th century. And it is wildly infectious. In Germany in 1970, a young tourist developed it after a trip to Pakistan. While in quarantine in hospital, he opened his window to sneak a cigarette. This was enough to infect 17 others, some two floors away.

• Tropical diseases are particularly nasty. Guinea worms grow up to a meter long inside the body of its victim, then escape by burrowing out of their skin. The only cure it to pull it out by winding the worm around a stick.

• In 1900, the third most common cause of death was diarrhea.

And with that happy thought, that’s all for this week.

Thank you, Philo T. Farnsworth

Cast of The Shield

In this time of the Coronapocalypse, let us pause for a moment to salute one of the greatest men of history, a man who made this stay-at-home panic bearable. That man is Philo T. Farnsworth, one of the fathers of television.

(For the record, Philo T. Farnsworth did not singlehandedly invent television. A Scot, John Logie Baird, invented and was selling a ‘televisor’ in 1929, which involved the use of a perforated, spinning disc. But Farnsworth gets most of the credit because a) he’s American, b) he invented the first electronic television, and b) the name Philo T. Farnsworth is a lot more fun than John Logie Baird.)

Imagine, for a moment, life without television today. I think a lot of us would be out shaking hands and kissing strangers in the hopes of catching the COVID-19 just to end the misery.

With quite literally nothing else to do in the world (how many times can you rearrange your bookshelf or record collection?), television is saving us from mass insanity. As a self-proclaimed expert on TV – I have six decades of obsessive TV watching – I thought I would share with you some of my favourite TV shows available for viewing today. Bear in mind that these choices are those of a 64-year-old Canadian white male, so your choices may vary. Mine, however, are correct. There is so much to go over, I’ll divide it into drama, comedy and documentary. This week, let’s get down and dirty with drama.

Drama

At the risk of being labeled a TV snob (I am, but I just hate being called a snob), most stuff on American and Canadian TV broadcast networks does not interest me at all. I suspect some of it is good – there are thousands of hours of network TV drama, so something has to be worthwhile, right? – but I haven’t found it yet. The formula of impossibly attractive, perfectly ethnically diverse cops/firefighters/lawyers doing impossibly exciting/bizarre/sexy things every week is too old school, even for an old school guy like me. (That being said, I can still recommend the new season of Cardinal on CTV, which returns Monday. It’s a Canadian show very much in the style of those bleak Nordic crime dramas popular on Netflix.) Unfortunately, all of my choices are available only on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Crave. (Speaking of streaming services, you can get the British TV service Acorn free with a library card, at least in Edmonton. And CBC Gem is also free, and has lots of good stuff.)

If you haven’t watched the two monumental TV achievements of the 2000s – Breaking Bad (Netflix) and The Wire (Crave) – do it now. The Wire, a gritty crime series set in Baltimore, is incredibly dense storytelling, and you may have to put on the closed captioning to understand what they’re saying (ghetto slang is all Greek to me). But it’s worth it. These two are the holy grail of TV crime dramas, but a less well-known series, The Shield (Amazon), is required viewing as well. The first episode begins with a shocking scene that reverberates throughout the seven seasons of the series, right through to the final, gut-wrenching episode, likely the greatest series finale in TV history. Lots of violence, drug dealing and corruption (but remarkably free of obscenities), The Shield will keep you entertained for 88 hours.

Timothy Olyphant of Justified.

Less violent, but no less entertaining, is Justified starring the effortlessly cool Timothy Olyphant as a U.S. Marshall reassigned to his native Kentucky, where he encounters the worst bunch of hillbillies this side of Deliverance. The first few episodes are just a notch above standard police shows, but after that it really takes off with the arrival of complex villain Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins (who is also great in The Shield). The stories are involving without being needlessly complex, and the dialogue crackles, particularly in the scenes between Olyphant and Goggins. It’s on Amazon, and there are 78 episodes available, so that should keep you happy.

Still on the crime beat, I’m a big fan of the Narcos series on Netflix, particularly the first two seasons based on the career of Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The most recent season, Narcos Mexico, switches the action to, well, Mexico, and I think it loses steam just a bit. But it’s all good. I can also recommend Mindhunter on Netflix, based on the true story of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, whose job it was to track down serial killers. It’s well made and quite chilling, but flawed by needless romantic subplots that just get in the way. Over on Amazon, Sneaky Pete is an offbeat crime drama about a con (Giovanni Ribisi) who scams his way into a family, only to find they are not quite the law abiding folks they appear to be.

If you like your crime stories with almost impenetrable Birmingham accents and lots of violence, you can’t go wrong with Peaky Blinders (Netflix), a British crime drama set in the 1920s. This is a show that almost requires the closed captioning to figure out what is going on.

The jolly good cast of Downton Abbey

OK, these are all pretty bleak, laced with violence and crime and plenty of obscenities. If you’re looking for something more peaceful and elegant, you can’t go wrong with Downton Abbey, (Netflix) the oh-so-British series about the wealthy Crawley family and their mostly loyal servants. I shouldn’t have enjoyed this series, but I did, to my eternal shame. There are 52 episodes to indulge in, so put on the kettle (or several kettles) and enjoy.

Speaking of shows that I should NOT have watched or enjoyed, I confess to wallowing in The Crown, the lavish Netflix series based on the life of 253-year-old monarch, Queen Elizabeth. A mixture of fact and speculation, The Crown is a soap opera on a grand scale. I loathe everything about monarchies, but darned if this isn’t entertaining. For something a little less sprawling, the new Netflix series The English Game looks back on the class divide in the early days of soccer, with a healthy dose of soap opera plotting to make it palatable to non-sporting types. And it’s short, too, at just six episodes.

Well, that should do it for dramas. Feel free to drop along suggestions of your own. If you watch all of these shows, that should get you through this virus outbreak, and the next. In the next blog, some comedic suggestions.

Now, this week’s bodily oddities from the book, The Body, A Guide for Occupants, by Bill Bryson.

  • Your stomach only holds 1 1/2 quarts. A large dog holds twice as much food as yours does.
  • The average woman in the U.S. today weighs as much as an average man weighed in 1960. The average American man today weighs 196 lbs., which makes me feel pretty good.
  • There is an extreme form of insomnia called fatal familial insomnia. Sufferers lose the ability to fall asleep and die of exhaustion and multiple organ failure. But don’t fret – it is entirely inherited, and is known to affect only three dozen families worldwide.
  • Speaking of sleep, the longest anyone has gone without sleep is a 17-year-old named Randy Gardner, who, as a school science project, stayed awake for 11 days and 24 minutes. When he finally slept, he was out for 14 hours, and when he awoke, he felt fine.

And finally, one word on the COVID-19 crisis. At last report, one million people have contracted the virus. But put in a glass-half-full kind of way, that means 7,599,000,000 don’t have the virus. Just a thought.

Scenes from a mall

The only food court customer.

On Saturday, at great personal risk, I went to a shopping mall.

I know, crazy, right? Taking a risk like that? Am I insane or something?

No, just painfully bored. After walking around the block about a hundred times in the last few weeks, my neighbourhood has lost its allure. I know exactly which houses still haven’t taken down their Christmas decorations.

Now, I didn’t go to the mall to do any shopping. I’m not a shopper at the best of times; if Canadian retailers depended on the spending power of people like me, the economy would have collapsed years ago. No, I just went for a change of scenery.

What did I find? A giant, slightly eerie ghost town.

I didn’t go for a stroll in just any mall, but THE mall – West Edmonton Mall, the largest mall in North America. I went there last week, before the Great Panic of 2020 was in high gear, and it was about 80% shuttered. The food courts were still open, but customers were few. But on Saturday, the mall was, by my scientific calculations, 99.242% closed.

I started at a food court, hoping to cash in on a free cup of A&W’s new coffee, which is a real improvement over their old coffee. (This is not saying much, however; I’ve always found A&W coffee tastes like stuff that was rejected by Folgers for being too crappy, which would make it the crappiest coffee in the world. But I digress …) The food court, however, was entirely shut down – with one exception. In a sea of shuttered shops, the Harvey’s/Swiss Chalet was open, with one sorta sad looking woman behind the counter, waiting for customers who will not show.

Walking through the mall, I could count the number of visitors on one hand, if I had a hand with eight fingers. Outside the skating rink (for out-of-towners, WEM has a regulation-sized skating rink), I saw two seniors sitting rather sadly, looking as if they were hoping that somebody, anybody, would come by to talk to them.

As I walked past shuttered store after shuttered store, there was still one olfactory sign of life; the scent from those stores that sell nothing but highly-scented soap still lingered. How do people work in those stores?

At about the half-way mark of the mall, I found an open store – the T&T Supermarket, which specializes in Asian foodstuffs. The store was cooking, literally; you could smell the Chinese food from metres away. (Insert your own ironic comment here.) They seemed to be doing a pretty good business.

Not far from T&T is the relatively new Louis Vuitton store, which sells the highest of high end crap to rich suckers. It, too, was closed, but Louis took it one step further – all of the merchandize in the store was gone, like it had been cleaned out by one of those heists they make bad movies about. Funnily, on the door of the Vuitton store there was one of those stickers you get when a delivery is made, but nobody is home. I’m going to hope that the UPS guy didn’t just leave the box outside the door.

I walked the length of the mall, and found six locations open out of the 800 or so stores and eateries – London Drugs, a Second Specs kiosk (great place to buy inexpensive glasses, by the way), the lone Harvey’s/Swiss Chalet, a supplement store, the T&T supermarket, and the Aurora Cannabis outlet. I went home about a brisk 45 minutes or so, only to notice for the first time a sign on the entrance that stated that the government had mandated an end to “mall walking”. That’s a lie. I checked the government’s website, and there is no such restriction. WEM just doesn’t want people aimlessly wandering their halls, unless they want to buy something.

Regardless, I’m done with mall walking. It was, if anything, even more depressing than seeing houses that haven’ taken down their Christmas decorations.

Since there is literally nothing else to talk about, I thought I’d share a story from the New York Times about how Sweden is handling this crisis. The ski hills are still operating, and restaurants and shops are still, in the main, open. The Swedish view is to mitigate the damage without shutting down society completely, as we have done here. (The City of Edmonton banned children from playgrounds this week, which struck me as the ultimate in over-reaction.) Here’s the story.

As promised last week, here are a couple of fascinating nuggets from The Body, A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson.

  • All penicillin in history is descended from the mold scraped from a single random cantaloupe.
  • There is a medical condition called cacosmia. For the “especially wretched” people with this condition, everything smells like feces.
  • In 1929, a young German doctor wondered if it was possible to gain direct access to the heart with a catheter. So, he experimented on himself by inserting a catheter into an artery in his arm and carefully pushing it until it reached his heart. Knowing he needed proof, he walked to the hospital’s X-ray ward and had some photos taken.
  • Each day, a kidney processes 190 quarts of water (which would overflow a bathtub), yet this workhorse of the body weighs just five ounces.

Next week, let’s talk TV and movies. Since we’re stuck inside with only our televisions and computers to keep ourselves occupied, I’ll share some of my streaming favourites. And I welcome anyone reading to send in a response about your favourites as well. It can’t always be about me, can it?