2020 Sucked Argentinosaurus Thingy

Of course, 2020 had to come around and become the worst of my 53 years so far. I guess to anyone who’s spent their lives in peace time, it’s been the worst year ever.

As 2019 morphed into 2020, the whole Covid-19 scare seemed as far off as SARS and MERS had been – a thing of distant lands, a little mysterious and definitely, doubtlessly, safely remote. I’d seen footage of Asian people with mouth masks for years, but I have to admit that didn’t vex me much. News reports mentioned Covid practically daily, but I wasn’t worried at all, not in my Western European privileged bubble. The world was a big place, and this was SEP – Somebody Else’s Problem. I was more affected by the death of Rush drummer Neil Peart on 7 January, which I managed to cope with by belatedly discovering and playing “Guitar Hero: Metallica”.

My little self-centered universe did not begin to be impinged upon until February.

We got the first Dutch Covid cases. In the traditionally Catholic south, the annual Carnival festivities caused a huge outbreak. The rest of the country was treated to visuals of ICs filled to the gills with patients, and everyone was strongly advised not to travel to the Southern province of Noord Brabant. I couldn’t visit my father, who had been in a nursing home there for the past three years. The rest of the country was beginning to worry, fueled by doom scenarious involving a shortage of respirators and all the country’s ICs filling up. I was beginning to worry, too, because I had quite a hand full of cards when it came to reasons to be in the “at risk” group of people: male, overweight, older, and having bronchitis.
Closer to home, an important educational school site I’d made a year or two earlier broke because of an update to PHP 7.2. Because I’d basically cobbled together other people’s stuff (including the rather essential login system), it was utterly beyond my skills to fix quickly. Hundreds of students needed it to check their reading skills and prepare for their central exams. I needed to arrange a separate virtual server that could run PHP 5.x to keep that site going, and hope to find time (and knowledge) to fix stuff when I had the time. That, and Covid looming ever close, caused quite a few sleepless nights.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte announced a set of Corona restrictions on 12 March. People went berserk on 13 March, madly hoarding toilet paper, pasta, canned vegetables and rice. On 15 March, secondary schools were closed by the government.
These restrictions and closures were, to be honest, quite exciting initially. The weather was beautiful, so my wife and I cycled 10-20 km daily. I had my first sunburn within a week. I was barely able to teach, because there was no fixed schedule yet, with a lack of structure. After about two weeks, this changed. Lessons were done using Microsoft Teams, and my wife (who works at another school, half an hour away) used Zoom. Teachers all over the Netherlands virtually instantly transformed from hesitant n00bs into fairly adroit digital professionals. Teachers were also considered “essential”, in the same category as care workers among others. It was nice to feel appreciated for a change.
Outside school hours we still cycled a lot – constantly irritated by the speed cyclists who seemed to have come out from under every rock – and wondered at how silent the city centre was, with shops closed, restaurant terrace furniture piled together on the premises, traffic information boards reading “Together Against Corona”, there being virtually no traffic on the roads, the large parking square in front of my house just about empty, no incessant flow of buses full of tourists from far-flung countries. It was the kind of atmosphere the word “eerie” was coined for. No shaking hands, always avoiding being close to others in the supermarket and on the streets. The weather continued to be awesomely sunny for weeks on end, but the mixture of excitement and worry was palpable.
The excitement began to abate as we began to realise we were not going to go on any holidays up to autumn at least, no concerts, no theatrical performances, no cinema, no festivals, no eating out in restaurants…and no final school exams either(!). And the excitement began to lessen even quicker when my wife and I discovered that it’s awfully inconvenient having to teach via video chat when you’re in the same room simultaneously. Sometimes we even had social get-togethers with wine and beernuts via video chat, both of us, at different ends of the room, irritating at each other’s tipsy ramblings. Writing it down like this, it certainly seemed like things weren’t too bad at all, not when compared to other places on the globe.
It was an interesting time, where we also discovered that the efficiency of online lessons can’t quite match physical lessons. Some of the kids joined lessons from their beds, from the comfort of sunny seats in a garden, or even less educationally conducive locations. Testing students also created special challenges. Slowly but surely, I really began to miss my students, and some of them even admitted to missing me. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, I suppose, also goes for school situations.

Early June my school started to do physical lessons again, within strict rules involving hygiene and distancing. It was different and not especially fun. It was certainly barely more efficient than teaching at a distance, but at least we got to enjoy the social aspect of teaching again. The exam classes got their diplomas, after having done optional “Result Improvement Tests” to allow for students who would normally have increased their grade averages during the final exams to have a better chance to graduate. As a result, only a handful of students failed to graduate. The graduation ceremonies were modest affairs with each candidate only allowed to bring a maximum of two people with them.

The summer holiday was different, too. We went to a few different places and spent a few nights in several bed and breakfasts, even spent a week in a rented house in Germany with all the kids. We started looking for a house to buy, which quickly turned out not to be quite as tempting as previously thought – house prices had shot through the roof instead of crashing like they had in 2008. We have made bids a few times, but we got outbid each time. Where are the times when only one person could bid on a house instead of 20 people having to make offers in hopes of outbidding all others?

After the summer holiday, all Dutch schools opened again, just like things had been until February. The students no longer needed to keep 6 feet apart. If all citizens kept their distance and generally followed the rules, there would be no need for further restrictions. At that time, restaurants were open, cinemas showed films again, and the world seemed to be carefully holding its breath until Covid would disappear. Everything was still different – fewer people could be in theatre halls, cinemas, restaurants and the like. Students would sometimes disappear for several days during which they turned out to have been in quarantine for a Covid test, or sometimes they stayed away longer when they actually turned out to be infected. Teachers at my school were expected to keep in touch with them and, where possible, allow the absentees to attend the classes by filming them via Teams. These hybrid lessons were the shittiest of all, and more difficult to implement than you might think as my school does not offer regular class-based education, rather domain-based education (which is perhaps an issue for another story at another time).

In October, things got heavy again. First, 6 October saw guitar hero Eddie van Halen dying. It crushed me. And 10 days later both my wife and me found ourselves at home with a Covid infection. Due to my aforementioned hand of “risk factor” cards I worried a lot that I would end up in an IC, on a respirator, hanging on for dear life. One day I woke up with a mild fever which sent my pessimism-laden imagination into overdrive. But in the end all I had had was a sore throat that came and went, a sniffy nose, a few days of headache, and then a few days of energy deficiency. My wife only had mild symptoms, too, though post-Covid complications (utter energy deficiency in her case) have caused her to have to stay at home until now (and probably for another few months). Not a regular flu virus, this one! I fervently hope medical science will now be motivated to come up with something that disables viruses in general from taking hold in the human body – which will also cure a whole host of other diseases that plague humanity.

Thankfully, 2020 was not a total loss for me. I re-launched a bunch of websites (the Fear of God fan site being the main one, but also datzeizij.nl and Twilight World Online), I created a pretty OK grammar support site for my school (grammar.training), I discovered what it’s like to fly a decent drone, and bought the world’s coolest practice amp (the Spark) to lift my guitar playing talents to a (though perhaps not the) next level. My wife and me took up ballroom dancing again after a year of inactivity. In the Christmas holiday I activated Amazon Prime. Maybe, in the long run, this whole pandemic will also make people appreciate care workers and other essential professions more. And no doubt the best thing to happen in 2020 was Joe Biden beating that narcissistic liar-in-chief. Joe has his shortcomings, but I feel Kamala Harris and he can change the world for the better. Why on earth did the Trumpanzee get more than a handful of votes is for future sociologists to fathom.

The world has become a smaller place. We are all dependent on each other. I hope 2021 will inch us a little closer to putting aside our grievances – political, religious and otherwise – and just make the world a better, safer and healthier place to live.

Yes, I know dinosaurs most probably didn’t have external sexual organs, in the same way reptiles and birds don’t. I hope you will find it in your dino-loving hearts to forgive me.
At any rate, I would like to wish you all a 2021 that will suck a lot less. Oculudentavis thingy, maybe.

Sixth Day at Home: Positive things to Covid19

Remember when I said I had to do something to consciously resist dark and depressing thoughts about the whole Covid crisis? Well, I have decided to concentrate on a variety of positive aspects and that works. Here’s a list that I will probably extend in due course. Maybe it will inspire you too.

  • There may be more of a feeling of global solidarity
  • Cash payments may become obsolete, indeed maybe all of them will be contact-less
  • We stay in contact with our elders more
  • We learn to work together and stay in touch with colleagues better
  • We wash our hands more, which is always a good thing
  • Anti-vaccers may now finally shut up (alternatively, millions of people will get autism after summer 2021)
  • The ultra-rich may be a lot less rich – it may be needed to tax them a whole lot more more to enable countries to emerge from this crisis economically
  • Carbon emissions have temporarily decreased a lot
  • The Chinese may stop eating exotic animals (while they’re at it, maybe also rhino horns and other things that supposedly make boners ease to achieve) and licking bats
  • Wet markets may be banned globally
  • Pharmaceutical companies are going to invest into research towards more general vaccines that may work against as-yet-unknown viral strains, or maybe entirely different ways to kill viruses (sound waves? radiation? just thinking out loud)
  • There will be ways to filter fake news from social media much more efficiently
  • Trump and Johnson may conceivably no longer be in a leadership position
  • Romantic consumerism (travelling to distant places) may become socially unacceptable (which includes a lot less CO2 emissions from airplanes)
  • There may be better quality TV shows as shitty new ones can’t be made and they’ll have to resort to reruns of The A-Team, The Knight Rider, Airwolf, Miami Vice and Friends
  • Even Trump can’t avoid non-re-election now (please please let this be true!)
  • Scum birds (seagulls, crows, magpies) are less prevalent in the cities and towns, probably due to much less edible human waste

There are also some things that may change in the near future that I am neutral about, I just think we’ll notice them…

  • Shaking hands may become a thing of the past

Last updated 16 April 2020

Third Day at Home

So the Dutch government has decided to go for the “herd immunity” option, where gradual spread of the virus will eventually prevent the virus from propagating exponentially. What really bothers me, though, is that herd immunity might be attained after several months…or years. Around half the population will need to have gone through a Covid19 infection, meaning a lot of people will need to have gone through the health system. How on earth can that be spread out over a period long enough so we don’t go through the oft-cited maximum capacity limit of the health system? And how is the world going to survive, financially, if nobody is really producing, importing or exporting anything at a large scale for such an extended period of time?
These thoughts irrecovably suck my thoughts into a dark well of despair. I understand climate change deniers ever more – it’s so much nicer to believe that things will really be OK and that no shit has hit any fans, rather than to know the full extent of any bad situation. That’s probably a basic psychological trait of human survival. But I surely hope no important policy makers fall into that category of people.

I read that the EU is investing 80 million euros in the German company that Trump was thinking of buying a few days ago. Reading such a news item gives me something positive to focus on.

Second Day at Home

Yesterday I already discovered that a scheduled holiday is entirely different when compared to a forced holiday. The involuntary nature of having to be at home even spoils the potential sense of freedom. And doubly so in an adolescent. My stepson had spent literally the entire spring break lying in bed watching videos on Youtube, but now he insisted upon going outside to play football with friends (something which was utterly impossible to suggest doing during said holiday). He was already bored at 09:00 AM, yesterday as well as today.

Today I spent most of the morning videoconferencing with fellow teachers of English, which starts out like it’s quite a bit of fun but then turns out to be ever so less efficient than meeting in person. Still, we managed to conceive plans for all grades. We need to plan as though things will be back to normal early April, but we also need to keep in the back of our minds that perhaps this entire school year will need to be rounded off with distant learning. How would you objectively decide whether a student is fit to move to the next grade if you can’t really test them? Out-of-the-box thinking is required.
Throughout the videoconference, my wife was sniffling and sneezing in the background. She has that sometimes, and has had it ever since I’ve known her. But in these Corona-suffused times, it does worry me more.

I visited school briefly. There were no children, and only a few colleagues who had chosen to meet face-to-face rather than via Microsoft Teams. I collected some paper-based protocols needed for near-future speaking tests in fourth grade (to be done via Teams) and went back home. The weather was lovely – sunny with a light breeze. In literature and movies, this is the kind of weather accompanying scenes of happiness and joy. It made me think back to the May 2000 Enschede fireworks disaster, where 23 people died and a whole neighbourhood was levelled against a background of blue sky, brightly shining sun and twittering birds.

Yesterday evening I watched some television and marvelled at the advertisements. Obviously, these had been booked in advance of the whole Corona thing, still blithely promoting trips abroad, special supermarket sales and other things that are not on people’s minds at the moment. The insanity of it all could have been complete if Albert Heijn’s regular “Hamsteren!” (Dutch for hoarding) campaign had been broadcast.

I’d like to round off with some good advice I read on Twitter earlier, which I’d also like to impart to you: Behave as if you might be spreading Corona, not as if you’re trying to avoid it.

Stay healthy.

First Day at Home

My wife looked up whether schools were ever closed, nation-wide, in the history of education in the Netherlands. They last were in World War II. And that was primarily because of lack of heating, not national policy. We were curious because, as of today, all schools in the Netherlands are closed due to #covid19. And we’re teachers.

I am not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse, but it’s reality at the moment. I have 4 exam classes that will somehow need to be guided towards the pinnacle of their highschool careers, but I don’t think anyone can even predict whether the exams are even going to happen in the usual month of May. Like Yoda said, “Difficult to see the future is.”

A select group of colleagues (I reckon management and middle management) have been asked to go to work today, probably to make plans for the near future. I already have a OneNote page titled “When school starts again”, full of miscellaneous thoughts of what to do then. How can we determine if children have enough skills/qualities to flow through to their next year, even if they have missed up to 4 months of school? How heavy can next school year’s curriculum be made to allow them to catch up? How can we prevent less autonomous children from falling by the wayside? I have one rather less autonomous stepchild at home, who instead of realising he may need to do something himself now, thinks the summer holiday sure started early this year. Netflix yay!
And even before school starts: How can we replace colleagues who may fall ill, without ourselves toppling over? How can the less tech-savvy colleagues be educated to help students at a distance? How can I do a ‘classical instruction’ for the exam classes? These students would normally have had another 5 weeks of regular school time. We use Microsoft Teams with Skype for Business, but what are the limits?

Still, I am good at seeing the silver lining of any cloud, no matter how big and thunder-laden it may be. When our government communicated these crisis measures, they released a list of ‘crucial professionals’. Teachers – despite decades of below-inflation pay rises and dwindling social status – are on that list. Youtubers, pastors, account managers, advertisement execs, wellness instructors and influencers weren’t 🙂 Also, CO2 emissions in China have virtually disappeared. And there’s a lot less traffic on the road: This morning, there was 13 kilometres of traffic congestion in the whole country. I think that’s the lowest since what is reckoned to be the first official one, on 29 May 1955 (not counting the ‘autoloze zondagen’ – Car-free Sundays – which we had in the 1970s).

Because I am basically a black-souled pessimist, however, I’d like to round this bit off with what I consider is an absolute lowpoint of the whole Corona virus crisis: That harmful White House halfwit, Donald Trump. He even outdid Boris “take it on the chin” Johnson. After first suppressing Corona infection statistics to increase his chances in the oncoming presidential election, the Orange One recently proposed to buy a German company that is allegedly making headway in the creation of a Corona vaccin. If there is any such thing as karma, he and his family will suffer before their time is out.

These are times for great leaders to grow to their full potential. I hope ours have what it takes.