Today’s sad commentary: We put a man on the moon a full quarter century before we thought to put wheels on suitcases.
COVID Etiquette 101: Dressing for dinner. After one’s 6 p.m. shower, it is good form to change into a clean nightgown or PJs.
One of Jon’s stories, “Never Disappointed,” has been included in a new Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology, Making “Me” Time. The anthology is being launched this week. Jon has a very limited number of copies available which he is willing to sell, autographed to your specifications, for $15 Canadian plus postage, which is far less than the bookstore price. Contact him immediately if you want to obtain a copy.
Note: This fuller treatment replaces an earlier version I posted on this site late last week.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle points to the difference between the natural and social sciences, when he says one cannot use the language of mathematics in discussing politics. And what is the essence of that difference? In the former, we are talking about matters of certainty; in the latter, matters of probability.
Where, then, does medicine fall in this little schema? In most younger and even middle-aged patients, it is closer to being a natural science. Generally one has an illness or injury, visits the doctor, and is treated for that illness or injury. End of story.
For us oldsters, though, it’s usually more complicated. Even when we see the doctor about a specific condition, we need to take into account the possible side effects of any medicines prescribed, as well as the interaction effects between those drugs and the ones we’re already taking. And often we need to take into account the relationship between the condition we’re seeing the doctor about and other, pre-existing conditions, or (for want of a better term) structural weaknesses. Not infrequently, treating one condition runs the risk of worsening another. In deciding what to do about a particular condition, both the doctor and we as patients must often engage in a balancing act–a balance of probabilities. This puts us squarely in the domain of the social sciences. Indeed, a dash of humanities (as well as humanity) can also be helpful, as that scribbling neurologist, Oliver Sacks, would not have hesitated to tell us.
Finally, where does the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic fall within our little schema? Certainly there’s a good deal of hard science involved, particularly when it comes to matters such as understanding how the virus is transmitted or how to develop vaccines against it. But hard science takes us only a small part of the way toward understanding how the pandemic has played out, is playing out, and will play out in practice.
Consider, for instance, the huge variation in case and death rates in different countries. Hard geographic fact–in particular, the fact that some countries are islands–helps explain some of that variations. Almost without exception, the countries (or states or provinces) that have fared best in the pandemic are islands. New Zealand and Iceland and, within Canada, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island come quickly to mind here. The explanation for this isn’t rocket science. It’s much easier to control and if need be block entry to an island, which normally can be entered only by sea or air, than to a jurisdiction which can be entered by road. By blocking or otherwise restricting entry, or by imposing strict quarantine conditions on those it does to allow to enter, the island jurisdiction has gone a long way toward preventing the virus from being transmitted from outside.
At the same time, even within the very limited domain of island jurisdictions, we find a few significant variations. Australia and New Zealand are both islands, yet the latter has had a better COVID record than the former. The hard facts of geography don’t explain this. To get such an explanation, we need to rely on “squishier” facts having to do with the jurisdiction’s social and political arrangements, legal system, and so on. These facts, in turn, will often have a good deal to do in determining, for example, how strictly travel into the island will be controlled, as well as the extent to which the government in question is willing to restrict its citizens’ behaviour in order to control the virus.
These “squishier” variables play an even bigger role when we start looking at all jurisdictions–particularly when we compare jurisdictions which on the surface appear to be similar. Take, for example, Sweden, as compared to its Nordic neighbours, Norway and Denmark. Geography certainly doesn’t explain Sweden’s far higher rate of COVID cases and deaths. Neither do the relatively “hard” facts of socio-economic development. The three countries have generally similar economies and are roughly at the same state of economic development. What is key here are the countries’ differing attitudes toward restrictions on their citizens’ freedom. Norway and Denmark moved to fairly strict lockdowns early on, and as a result had many fewer cases and deaths than Sweden, which was notably and notoriously reluctant to do so, even in the face of early evidence suggesting it was taking the wrong approach.
Such political and cultural factors play an even bigger role in understanding interstate and interprovincial COVID case and death rate differences in the U.S. and Canada. Between the lowest and highest COVID rates among American states, (e.g. Vermont and North Dakota),there is a per capita difference of the order of about 10:1. Between the lowest and highest COVID rates among Canadian provinces (e.g. P.E.I. and Quebec or Alberta), the per capita difference is more like 50:1. Granted, as noted above, P.E.I. does benefit from being an island and thus being able to restrict entry quite easily. But even if we substitute the non-island Atlantic province of Nova Scotia for P.E.I., the per capita difference is still of the order of nearly 20:1.
In attempting to account for such huge interstate and interprovincial differences, the two critical factors are politicians’ willingness to impose tough restrictions on their citizens’ freedom, and citizens’ willingness to accept those restrictions. Like the other Atlantic provinces, Nova Scotia went into strict lockdown mode, with restaurants, beauty parlours, gyms, and even public libraries and public parks closed before it had even a handful of cases. In contrast, Western provinces like Alberta didn’t impose such restrictions until well after all of Atlantic Canada had. Even at their strictest, these provinces tended to be not as strict as the Atlantic ones were, both with respect to the restrictions themselves and to enforcement. And when they did impose those restrictions, they were far more often greeted with strong resistance than were provincial governments in the Atlantic region.
Even hard-hit central Canadian provinces such as Quebec, which would experience the highest case and death rates in the country, didn’t impose restrictions until later than Atlantic Canada did. Quebec Premier Legault brought in restrictions closing schools and most businesses on March 23, nearly a week after such restrictions had been imposed in Nova Scotia, despite the fact that Quebec had reported cases some time before any of the Atlantic provinces had. Interestingly, the Atlantic provinces have reported the highest satisfaction rates in Canada with the way provincial governments have handled the pandemic, a fact which suggests a good deal of social consensus among the citizenry. Again, such social consensus is much harder to find in Western provinces (particularly Alberta, whose Premier is the staunchly pro-business Jason Kenney) and in Quebec.
The differences between and even among states are greater yet in the U.S. In Maine and Vermont, it would appear that most citizens are prepared to comply, albeit grudgingly, with state-imposed mask requirements and other restrictions. Elsewhere in the country, the closing of business and mask requirements have resulted in loud and not infrequently violent protests. In some states, municipal sheriffs have refused to enforce state restrictions. In others, state officials have overridden municipal restrictions imposed by city mayors and other local officials. In Michigan, a sharply divided state politically, things reached such a point that armed men stormed the state capitol, threatening to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who had imposed (by American standards) tough restrictions on businesses.And many disputes in stores between mask-wearing and non-mask-wearing customers have turned ugly, even violent, and assaults on store employees who’ve insisted on enforcing their stores’ mask policies have become far from infrequent. While one would not want to push this generalization too far, it would appear that by and large, Americans are more insistent than Canadians or Europeans on retaining their personal freedom to do what they want when they want. And American politicians, wishing like most politicians to be re-elected, have responded by being slower than most Canadian or European politicians to impose lockdowns or shut down businesses, and quicker to remove lockdowns and re-open businesses. (This was carried to extremes in Florida during the spring of 2020, when pictures of half-naked Floridians packing newly-reopened beaches went viral on the Internet at the same time as case rates were still rising both there and in the rest of the U.S., as well as in Canada). In the name of generating income from business, some American states (e.g. South Dakota) not only condoned but encouraged enormous “super-spreader” gatherings such as the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. which drew six-digit crowds to the small town. Not surprisingly, perhaps, South Dakota and its adjoining states rank at or near the top of the pack in COVID cases. One could not even imagine such a gathering or anything remotely close to it being condoned in Canada, where even during the mid-summer “lull” public events such as worship services, concerts, and theatrical performances continued to be significantly restricted.
Much of the higher COVID incidence in “red” Republican states is due to what former President Donald Trump did or, more precisely, didn’t do about the pandemic through his largely laissez-faire approach to the disease. Though I haven’t yet completed my tabulations, it appears that for the most part, states that supported Trump in the 2020 presidential election had higher COVID rates than those that didn’t. Vermont, with just about the lowest COVID rates in the country, had just about the highest rate of support for Joe Biden and the Democrats, and thus lowest rate of support for Trump. On the other hand, South Dakota, whose ultra-right-wing Governor was practically a Trump clone in her approach to COVID, and where, as noted, a “super-spreader” event was held during the summer, ranked near the top in support for Trump, along with other neighbouring high-COVID states like Nebraska and North Dakota. In the latter state, as well as in South Dakota, well over one resident in ten has had COVID—officially. This compares with a national American rate of something over 6%, and the national Canadian rates of something over 2%. The Canadian province with the highest COVID rate is Quebec, where just over 3% of the residents have had the disease.
It isn’t going too far to suggest that in some American states, particularly in the South and West, the virulent disputes over COVID restrictions are not just disputes about tactics; they are disputes over the existence of COVID as such, as a disease whose defeat will only be achieved through a marshalling of societal resources comparable to what we have hitherto seen only in wartime. Indeed, they are in many cases even more fundamental disputes about the scientific method as such, and its use, along with that of factual evidence, in solving society’s problems (including those caused by pandemic diseases). Between those who do and those who don’t believe in the scientific method and the solution of problems through evidence, there can be no middle ground. Either you believe in the scientific method or you don’t; it isn’t, for example, possible to use science on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays but revert to medieval-style theocracy on the remaining days of the week.
While Americans have had many bitter political disputes in their country’s tumultuous history, few, with the possible exception of the Civil War, have been over issues so fundamental in nature. To find the equivalent of the ongoing American battle between those believing in science and those not believing in it, you would need to go to the Middle East, where such battles between theocratic “traditionalists” and scientific “modernizers” have made up a large part of the political landscape over the past several decades.
You might think that in this discussion of COVID, I’ve strayed a long way from my original topic. But nothing could be further from the truth. Science itself can hardly be expected to explain why some citizens believe in it while others do not. To even attempt to come up with such an explanation, we must draw on all manner of “squishier” factors, ranging from historical and cultural ones to socio-economic and religious ones—including even some that would normally fall within the domain of abnormal psychology. In closing, I shall attempt another, admittedly broad but not, I think, unreasonable generalization. Based on the very ample international, interstate, and interprovincial evidence provided by the ongoing COVID pandemic, it would appear that societies fare best when their scientists and doctors are allowed to operate in relatively unfettered fashion, free from political interference and certainly from the threat of bodily harm regrettably experienced by the eminent American disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. In other words, we’re likely to do best when medicine is allowed to operate as something approaching a natural science, with of course reasonable allowance made for specific cultural circumstances.
Thankfully, the new U.S. President, Joe Biden, seems to agree with me. Let’s hope he will be able, during his time in office, to overcome the forces of darkness and medieval theocracy sufficiently to be able to bring science fully to bear on the herculean task of defeating COVID, and the equally herculean task of rebuilding an economy shattered by COVID. Returning to the Aristotelian note on which this piece began: the past four years have provided ample, even overwhelming evidence that politics itself does best when its domain is rather closely circumscribed, and it is not freighted down with all sorts of other things, such as religion, science, and matters of personal morality. The less that enters the political arena, the better the political system will work.
 It should be noted that by any Canadian standards except perhaps those of Alberta, Whitmer’s restrictions were relatively lax. For example, houses of worship were allowed to conduct services with few limits on gathering size.
 Data used for these statements are as of Feb. 1, 2021.
This will be my third musical birthday as a senior. First came the “Beatles Birthday” (#64), and then the “Road Trip Birthday” (#66). Now it’s my “Trombone Birthday” (#76). Spoiler alert: next year will be my “Old New York radio commercial birthday” (#77).
I’ve just learned that as an individual between 70 and 80, I fall into the sixth category for COVID vaccination in Quebec. Vaccination for me and the rest of my age cohort should be available starting the week of March 15.
While I might like to be a bit higher up in the lineup, it’s good to see that I am in the lineup, and have some idea of when I might be called up to bat, so to speak.
This is the one joke I know about sociology. I offer it as a kind of coda to my previous piece.
Two sociologists were talking about Weber and Hegel. One of them proclaimed, proudly, that he had read all the works of both authors.
“Did you read them in English or in the original German?” his companion asked.
“Does it make any difference?” the first man replied.
On Twitter: I didn’t do a Ph.D. in English and write three books and more than 200 articles so I could spend a large part of my old age spewing out 23-word posts in baby talk to a semi-literate audience with an average attention span of 29 seconds.
Knowing when to walk away from something or someone is a difficult skill to acquire, but essential in order to safeguard one`s physical and emotional well-being, particularly as one ages.
It’s important to note that the COVID pandemic, which altered so many people’s lives across Canada and around the world, came close to derailing my move, as well. My original plan had been to give notice at my old apartment at the end of March, and make the move at the end of May. The reason for the end of May moving date was that I have seen snowy and icy conditions on the Cobequid Pass and in New Brunswick well into May, and didn’t want to have to face those conditions myself when driving a fully loaded car or trailer. In addition, I was in a musical in Eastern Passage through the first week of March, and couldn’t really start serious move preparations until that show had closed.
I’d finished packing most of my books and was confidently looking forward to giving my notice at the end of March and proceeding with the move at the end of May, when the first COVID case was diagnosed in the province, just before the middle of the month. At that point, neither I nor anyone else had any idea how long the pandemic would last or what effect it would have on one’s ability to move from one province to another. In the face of so many unknowns, I decided to put the move on hold for one month and await further developments. At the end of April, with Canadian cases mounting into the thousands and still no clear sense of whether the move would even be physically possible in two months’ time, I put it on hold for another month.
But by the end of May, things had improved enough to allow the move to go back on the agenda again. At this point, Nova Scotia had a total of 1054 confirmed cases—only 15 fewer than it has now (August 2). Of those confirmed cases, only 18 remained active, and all but four of those active cases were connected to the Northwood Long Term care facility in North End Halifax. As my detailed plague journal outlines in more detail, the province was by this time contemplating a broad reopening of businesses and services. I saw no reason to delay the move any longer.
There remained, however, the problem of New Brunswick, which had for some time been turning away visitors at its borders. I didn’t want to go to all the trouble of loading up a car or trailer, only to be turned back at the border—especially not after having given up my apartment and having nowhere to stay. But a call to New Brunswick’s Public Safety Department confirmed that that would not be the case. People driving across New Brunswick to move to another province were permitted to do so, providing they had a letter attesting to their new residence in their new province, and providing they drove straight through, without stopping for the night. (Stops for meals, gas, and the calls of nature were permitted). Though I was not completely happy with this rule, which meant I would need to stop the first night in Amherst, N.S., in order to make it across the province of New Brunswick in one day, I figured I could live with it. Furthermore, there was always the possibility of an easing of restrictions by the time I actually came to make my move. With this in mind, I wrote the move back onto my schedule as a “definite,” planning to give my two months’ notice at the end of June, which in fact I did. As an added bonus, by the beginning of July, the four Atlantic provinces had established an interprovincial “bubble,” by means of which a resident of any Atlantic province who had not travelled outside the region or been exposed to the virus could freely enter any other. Now I’ll be able to drive across New Brunswick in civilized, even leisurely fashion, stopping in Fredericton to spend the night and then moving on to Riviere du Loup, Quebec, for my final night on the road.
Given that the pandemic was bound to delay my move one way or the other, Nova Scotia was probably the best place I could have spent those months of delay. Overall, I don’t see how things could have worked out much better for me during the pandemic than they did. Although Nova Scotia did experience over 1000 cases, the vast majority of patients did not require hospitalization, and at no point was the health care system near total collapse, as it was in certain parts of Quebec and Ontario at the pandemic’s height—not to mention most of the U.S. It was easy to stay as safe as possible simply by avoiding public transit and keeping my visits to grocery, drug, and liquor stores and the bank as infrequent as I could. Even after the parks were closed at the end of March, there were still many beautiful trails and cut-throughs on which to walk, and the climate was equable enough so I was able to walk, for close to an hour, at least four days out of five. Being able to get regular, vigorous exercise was a key part of maintaining my sanity throughout the lockdown days.
As for the health care system, while like health care systems across the country, it lay dormant through most of the pandemic, with non-emergency surgeries and diagnostic procedures put on hold, it, or enough of it, was there for those times when I really needed it. Hit by a major anxiety attack, which kept me up an entire night in the middle of April, I was able to get in to my regular clinic to see one of the duty doctors, who prescribed me the right drug to calm me down. The Emergency room was also there when I needed it, late in July. A hernia that I had thought only a minor nuisance and occasional inconvenience had suddenly flared up, after two probably inadvisable tennis sessions in the same week. Unable to bear the pain, or to push the hernia back to its proper place, I sought help at Emergency, and within three and a half hours had received it.
Unfortunately, I was not able to obtain the surgery I obviously needed. But the highly-skilled ER doctor was able to massage the giant lump back into a safe place, using a technique that she showed me and which I have used, more or less successfully, ever since. I call it “wrestling the turtle.” She also managed to convince me that I would probably be able to get by without surgery for a couple more months, until I arrived in Quebec and could have the hernia seen to there. While not completely reassured, I figured I could still get on with my move as scheduled, providing I got help with the heavy physical parts of the job.
Once again, during the pandemic, Nova Scotia had proven to be a haven and a refuge for me. I felt as safe and secure here as I would have almost anywhere in the world. The things about Nova Scotians that have normally irritated me—the social conservatism, the extreme deference to authority, the intellectual timidity—were actually assets during the pandemic. But interestingly enough, as May turned into June and as active cases in the province dropped to single digits, I would again start finding these traits irritating, as I had for most of my time here. This seemed to me further evidence that it was time to leave.
It was good to know that I had a great deal on an apartment and a wonderful girl friend waiting for me “on the other side.” Knowing that I had these, but could well lose them if I shilly-shallied too long, proved a spur to my flagging will when, sometime around mid-May, I began to wonder if the pandemic would ever end, and if I would ever be able to make the move safely. Was living in Nova Scotia really all that bad that I wanted to take the risk of moving? Fortunately, at that point, I was able to step back from my immediate situation, and appreciate that the same things that had bothered me about Metro Halifax for many years would continue to bother me once the pandemic had ended. Despite superficial appearances, nothing here had really changed. I would continue to be a misfit, not even comfortable in my own apartment, into which I was ashamed to invite guests, as long as I stayed in the province.
Over the years, I’ve come up with two distinct images of Nova Scotia in general and Metro Halifax in particular, images that may help explain my relationship to the province and city. The first is that of a sweet, charming, lovely woman about 40 points below my IQ level. The second is that of a community college, an institution offering a broad range of introductory experiences, but little in the way of in-depth experience for students needing or wanting to specialize. For years, it was the first of those images that held sway. In recent years, however, I have more and more leaned toward the latter image, as I discover that for all its considerable surface charm, the province remains structurally underdeveloped if not undeveloped, with the result that there are few opportunities for those with serious ambitions of any kind. Those few opportunities that do exist must be carefully husbanded and rationed among the area’s “lifers,” leaving few if any open for us “come from aways (CFAs)” who were not born here.
I won’t for a moment deny that life is easy here; undoubtedly that is one of the things that brings people back after years away. But ease of living, while a good thing, is not a substitute for intellectual opportunities and an emotional depth to life and to relationships. As becomes clearer and clearer to me each day I remain here, I am simply in a different intellectual and emotional league from the vast majority of Nova Scotians, few of whom share my intellectual background, emotional intensity, or drive to excel in writing and theatre.
Things that I will miss about Nova Scotia include the fresh sea breezes, the sound of foghorns, the relatively moderate climate, Point Pleasant Park, Halifax Public Gardens, the history museum at Lake Charlotte, the year-round availability of high-quality fresh seafood, the low food prices at No-Frills in Dartmouth, the Immigration Museum at Pier 21, the Fisheries Museum in Lunenburg, the occasional sounds of bagpipe music, the more frequent sounds of Celtic music of all sorts, the great helpfulness of the staff at all the city’s public libraries, and the friendliness and basic decency of the Nova Scotians whom one meets casually, even if, with the vast majority of people, that consideration and concern extend only to the surface of life.
Most of all, I shall miss the large, often chilly Lido pool at the Waegwoltic tennis club. Throughout most of the past decade, the Lido has been my shield and my refuge, especially at those times when, as now, I have not been able to play tennis. For over a decade, the Lido’s waters have continued to soothe aching knees, ankles, hips, and even wonky hernias such as the one I’m now experiencing. While there will be other museums in West Quebec and Ottawa, other places to hear music and to dance, and to find and enjoy fresh seafood, there will be no Lido, or anything remotely close to it. My last swim there will be a sad moment, indeed.
Things I won’t miss in my new home include the Armdale Rotary, or whatever it is now known as in the New Dispensation, the parking lot at the Waegwoltic, and the frequent strangulated chaos of bridge traffic, typically resulting from the untimely closure of one or the other of HRM’s two cross-harbour bridges. I shall also not miss many Nova Scotians’ blind submission to authority, whether that authority in fact knows what it is doing or not, most Nova Scotians’ poor communication skills, and the Nova Scotia turn signal, which starts when the car is about halfway into the turn and ends three seconds later. I shall definitely not miss the province’s literary community, which has barely acknowledged my existence, or the tennis side of the Waeg, which has since my hip surgeries a few years back given me a steady diet of marginalization. And I’ll be happy to bid farewell to the nepotism and extreme cliquishness displayed by many (though not all) of the area’s community theatre companies over the past three or four years. Who knows where my theatre career might have gone had three or four directors (who shall remain nameless) simply cast parts as the playwrights intended that they be cast?
Most of all, I won’t miss the province’s dating scene, which with one or two exceptions has been such a trial over the past decade. The near-constant rejection I’ve encountered, rejection that has ranged from a cavalier dismissiveness of anything I’ve had to say to downright abusiveness, had for some time the effect of making me doubt myself and my worth as a male.
For me, the beginning of wisdom arrived when I realized that the women I was corresponding with weren’t actually interested in a real relationship as such; most were seeking only casual companionship. My suspicions on this head were fully confirmed in a conversation I had with a bridge partner, who allowed as how the vast majority of unattached older women in the province weren’t really interested in sex. While this struck me as odd, even bizarre, it actually explained quite a bit about my persistently negative experiences on the dating sites, and confirmed the wisdom of my decision to leave. My far more positive experience on the dating sites since changing my address from Nova Scotia to Metro Ottawa has provided further confirmation on that score.
At the end of the day, I cannot be myself and live here. I need to go somewhere where I can be myself, and Ottawa/West Quebec to me offers a far better chance of being that place. Not that I won’t always love Nova Scotia, because I will, as one will love a tender sweetheart with whom things just didn’t quite work out. Indeed, I could well imagine coming back for a month or a season, in the summer, for one-off writing stints or theatre gigs. But the bottom line is that for me, Nova Scotia must be a mistress rather than a wife.
I see my impending departure from a better perspective when I realize that I actually need to leave now for much the same reason I needed to leave in 1978, at a time when I had few issues with anyone in the province. I left then because I needed a job, and there were no job opportunities for a new Ph.D. in English. Indeed, there were virtually no professional opportunities of any kind available. Had there been any, I probably wouldn’t have left. As it was, the perilous state of the job market forced me to move to Pennsylvania to take up the only teaching job I was offered.
Recognizing the fundamental similarity between my situation in 1978 and my current situation has made it easier to accept my need to leave. Though the past decade’s slights, rejections, and marginalizations can’t be totally discounted, such a recognition moves us beyond the realm of slights and rejections. While that recognition hasn’t been easy to arrive at, it’s an essential part of my post-retirement growth. Understanding what it is I need, and why my present environment, beautiful though it is, cannot provide it, has finally freed me for my best shot at a successful closing chapter of my life.
Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce
Dartmouth, N.S., July-August, 2020
 Though this was, admittedly, an extraordinary occurrence, I’ve seen snow flurries and near-zero temperatures on the Cobequid Pass as late as the second weekend in June.
 (Update as of September 7). I did indeed get the help I needed, and was able to complete the move pretty much without incident. Meanwhile, I’ve been given an early November date for surgery at the Shouldice Hernia Clinic in Thornhill, Ontario, just outside of Toronto. While I’m not enthralled at the idea of having to wait two more months for my surgery, I’ll probably be able to manage OK, having mastered the technique of “wrestling the turtle” and having acquired a better sense of what I can and can’t do physically.