Marwood: Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day, and for once I’m inclined to believe Withnail is right. We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making an enemy of our own future. What we need is harmony. Fresh air. Stuff like that.Withnail and I (1987) Source: Withnail & I – The Script (tripod.com)
A film about two creatively stuck, depressed and broke out of work actors, Withnail and I (1987) is a compelling metaphor for the mental state with COVID: a struggle between darkness, hopelessness and optimism and opportunity1. I thought that getting through the pandemic was odd, but slowly coming out of it has been equally strange. Here, I’ll focus on the weird and in Gratitudes: these are a few of my favourite things, 2022 edition, I’ll turn my attention to the wonderful.
I’ve had trouble remembering what happened exactly, when. On a recent walk of Tommy Thompson Park with my family, I had them in stitches trying to reconcile what transpired over the past two and a half years. I know when it started. I know when it began to end. What happened in between? Let’s review.
What happened? A Redux.
|February 2020||IT Services rolls out Office 365 for Students, I hand out slices of pizza in the front foyer of OCAD to encourage students to log in. In retrospect, seemingly absurd.|
|March 2020||Ontario declares a state of emergency on March 17th. City of Toronto declares state of emergency March 23rd. |
Many businesses were restricted from operating until June 24, 2020. Masks were not required until July 7, 2020
OCAD University suspends face-to-face classes, academic and research activities. This included a 1 week break from classes. OCAD University pivots to emergency remote teaching.
|May 2020||An incredibly busy semester. Microsoft Analytics told me that I had between 16%–24% of my time to focus and I read most of my emails at 10:00pm at night. Gradex 105 cancelled, convocation cancelled.|
|July 2020||OCAD U welcomes its new President Ana Serrano. AV team upgrades most classrooms on campus.|
|July 2020||Pandemic safe vacations in Algonquin Park and Bruce Peninsula|
|September 2020||Second Semester of Remote Teaching and Learning at OCAD University|
|October 2020||Toronto Public Health, overwhelmed by new cases, suspends contact tracing. OCAD U announces a continuation of remote learning, with a few optional studio courses that require in-person learning. Halloween is a “no trick or treating” non-event.|
|November 2020||Second lockdown until December 26th|
|December 2020||Health Canada approves mRNA vaccines. Provincial shutdown with stay-at-home orders and second state of emergency that lasted until March 2021.|
|January 2021||Third Remote Teaching and Learning Semester at OCAD University.|
|February 2021||Health Canada approves AstraZeneca vaccine.|
|April 2021||Provincial shutdown and stay at home order lasted until June 2, 2021.|
|May 2021||Fourth Remote Teaching and Learning Semester at OCAD University. |
My first vaccination shot of AZ on Star Wars Day, May 4, 2021.
At the same time, the University was planning for what the future might look like and we had a Gradual Opening Fair with presentations on Hybrid Work.
|August 2021||Proof of vaccination requirement for coming on campus including a self-assessment and mask mandates.|
|September 2021||OCAD University ran remote, partially remote and hybrid courses which were subject to physical distancing and capacity restrictions. Some classes needed to meet in person in alternate weeks due to class sizes. Some employees began to return on campus including the Studios and IT. I started working on campus in September. Students with priority access only booked time in Shops and Studios and Computer Studios. TDSB returned to in-person learning with restrictions.|
|November 2021||OCAD U Classrooms return to normal capacity.|
|January 2022||End of physical distancing in classrooms. 56% of classes scheduled on campus. Classes were delayed, beginning online only until January 28, 2022 due to the Omicron wave. Third booster shot. Also, I caught COVID. OCAD U maintains vaccination requirements, self-assessments and mask requirements for the Winter term.|
|May 2022||The first in-person OCAD U Graduate Exhibition (May) and Convocation (June) since 2019.|
City of Toronto announces the end of Toronto’s state of emergency “after being in effect for 777 consecutive days, the longest for any major city in the world”.
|Summer 2022||1 week of my daughter’s camp was cancelled due COVID. I drove to Nova Scotia to pick up my wife, who caught COVID and was unable to travel.|
|September 2022||OCAD U students, faculty and staff return to campus in the most normal semester since 2019. Many protocols stayed in place however, including wearing masks when not eating or drinking, and required in shops, studios, the Library and elsewhere.|
“I feel unusual”
Withnail: What is it? What have you found?Withnail and I (1987) Source: Withnail & I – The Script (tripod.com)
Withnail: Matter? Where’s it coming from?
Marwood: Don’t look, don’t look. I’m dealing with it.
Withnail: I think we’ve been in here too long. I feel unusual. I think we should go outside.
In this scene, Withnail and Marwood are trying to wash the dishes: the kitchen looks like the set of a well-lit horror movie, and there is some indescribable material clogging their drains. Neither can put their finger on what it is or describe in words what is causing the problem in their lives: it’s just “matter,” hence their continuing predicament as to what to do. Why have I been feeling unusual? Acting strangely irritable at times, nostalgic at others, excited and optimistic and then dark and disengaged about things that I care deeply about and usually enjoy. What is the matter clogging my drains?
What troubled me most was how we went from a period of solidarity to a kind of slow unravelling. There was a clear once-in-a-century crisis that brought people together around a common cause, but over time suffered some kind of entropy or decay to the point we’re at now. Some of the forces are understandable. It’s clear that many of us had shared circumstances, but many had a different experience based on their personal and economic situations: people lost quality of life, work and some lost friends and family. Some of this has been regained, and some are still trying to replace what was lost.
I found it troubling that we came though the worst of it – with many saved and suffering avoided, and an opportunity to rejoice – and yet this somehow wasn’t good enough. Extremist views, hateful attitudes towards LGTBQ+ and BIPOC folks, misinformation, the dropping of restrictions in the face of health care staffing shortages and bogus excuses and politicking from those who have the ability but not the will to make change. In this unravelling, Russia invaded the Ukraine, women’s rights in Afghanistan rolled back under the Taliban, and in the US with repeal of Roe v. Wade, companies profited from stagflation or opportunism, billionaires became internet trolls or worse, and the list goes on. There are some bright lights like Brazil, the US midterms, and Iran that show people expressing their democratic rights and rejecting repressive ideologies, and new discoveries, but I can’t help but feel there is a certain DGAF attitude at this point that leads to disengagement. I understand not wanting to care, but let’s not care about the right things and start getting engaged in what’s most important: improving the lives of others, educating the next generation, and addressing climate change (for a start).
The uncanny return to work
I started back at the office more than a year ago, in September 2021. Even though only a few activities were still being held in-person on campus, I wanted to be present to support the staff and show them that being in community with one another – in person as well as online – was important. Many were anxious about returning to campus, but all for different reasons. I was worried about falling ill, but especially spreading COVID to my octogenarian parents. But it was more than that. Our previous workplaces had become alienated from us through being physically removed from them. And thus, uncanny.
First, it was a kind of nervous anticipation. Returning to work had the same creative, joyful dimension of a performer going on stage, but also the socially awkward ones. Was it going to be weird seeing people? Would people judge me for my appearance? The pandemic was hard on our bodies and I feel like I aged a decade during the lockdown. But I was excited about being back on campus: it was going to be great to see people, feel their energy, be sympathetic and learn from one another. Two years of students had never been on campus and wanted to live out their creative dreams, and we had to be ready to help students realize those dreams. Student experiences during the pandemic were diverse: while many students wanted to get out of their often cramped, shared living spaces and back to campus, some thrived in the online environment and it allowed them a flexibility they never experienced.
I know from friends and neighbours that those in the working world definitely got comfortable with their working situation: their technology was setup exactly the way they wanted at home, with an abundance of snacks, a washroom close by and all their creature comforts like house pets and family members to keep them company. Bathroom untidy? You could clean it. Not so at the office and you can’t have words with the person who left it untidy. So, returning to the office was a bit of a shock to the system for many. No matter how good the commute and shared office experience was, employees went from an environment designed around their desires, to a shared experience designed around the common good – maybe a step down – not designed around their preferences.
A work conflict underlined this difference: a colleague observed that employee expectations were higher about their return work. People had become accustomed to the highly individualized, personalized workspace in their home. At the same time, some folks had a lowered ability or tolerance to manage with the numerous changes. Some folks had forgotten how to do certain things in-person. I had forgotten how to do many things. All of us needed to relearn.
However, for the past two years, that’s all everyone has been doing. Pivoting, relearning to deliver curriculum via emergency remote teaching. Relearning to how to support students and families. Relearning to be a person in lockdown. People are momentarily fatigued of relearning, and having to compromise.
So, I started to relearn. I created new habits and picked up some old ones. I stopped working from home almost entirely. I stopped working in the evening and reclaimed my time. I packed lunch, snacks, coffee and patience: doing so reduced my contact with others, and gave focus. I rode my bicycle to work every day for the joy of it, avoiding public transit. My bicycle kept me active and sane: a quick ride and sweat made everything seem normal and real.
“It’ll get better. It has to.”
One bit of advice someone shared that has stayed with me, is that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same behaviour and expect different results: that we need to change in order to advance. Upon researching this, I found this is not the definition of insanity and an oft repeated myth and confusion between perseveration and perseverance. Though, the point is made: it’s absurd to keep doing the same thing if it’s detrimental and not working, and so we have to change. Change involves disruption, but we need to keep consulting and iterating to ensure we’ve made the right change.
At the end of Withnail and I, the departure of Marwood to the train station to pursue a role marks his leaving the flat and friend, Withnail grasps on to the wrought iron fence of the wolf pen, speaking Hamlet’s lines as a soliloquy:
Withnail: I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory […]Withnail and I (1987) Source: Withnail & I – The Script (tripod.com)
Withnail either is unable or unwilling to take control of his situation: he too is like the wolves pacing, fenced in and stuck. Marwood from the get go sees that all of this is a dead end and “It’ll get better. It has to.” Of the two, clearly Marwood is the more emotionally intelligent, and knows that he needs to change to thrive, improves his life through his optimistic perspective and willingness to accept what he can change.
If you enjoyed reading this, and are looking for a palate cleanser or things to be grateful for,
read Gratitudes: these are a few of my favourite things, 2022 edition.
- Fair warning: one should note the problematic portrayal of homosexuality in Uncle Monty and that really the bromance between Withnail and Marwood could have been more than just that. Also, other dated language such as a racial slur used towards Presuming Ed.