Thoughts on a Plague Year

March 11, 2020, is when I peg the start of my personal plague year. I was on the JoCo Cruise at the time and had intentionally avoided news up to that point, but then two things happened. One, people came up to me wanting to tell me about Tom Hanks contracting the COVID virus (people knew that I know him personally), and two, my editor Patrick sent me a cryptic email telling me that I should call him immediately. After reminding him I was on a cruise and the ocean does not have cell phone towers, he told me via email that my book tour was cancelled and that plague was everywhere. I gave in at that point and caught up with the news from the world, all bad.

Other people peg the start of their plague year slightly earlier or later, but March 11 was when the plague touched me directly, first by infecting someone in my personal sphere, and then by messing with my livelihood. No longer was it something that was happening elsewhere. It was happening to me.

The year since has been, well, a lot. My kid got COVID; she, being 22 and being in reasonably good shape, was tired for a few days and lost her sense of smell. Some friends got it and fared worse; one of them had to undergo surgery for damage to his heart. Other people of my acquaintance died from it. In November I got sick with something that felt like COVID but which two separate tests suggest was not; we may never figure out what it was. I can’t think of anyone I know who didn’t have someone close to them affected by COVID, and sometimes that person was them.

As of the moment there are more than 525,000 COVID-related deaths in the United States, and that number is almost certainly too low. Much of this number — some estimates say about 40% of it — is the responsibility of the previous administration’s appallingly bad response to it, in which the then-president and his fellow travelers repeatedly tried to downplay the severity of it, and then mismanaged the dealing with it by prioritizing politics over science, and settling scores over helping people. Our unlamented, likely-to-be-in-prison-soonish former president will go down in history as the Man Who Botched a Plague, and he will deserve it. Currently he is out there in the periphery, querulously complaining that no one gives him credit for doing the things that are now helping to curb COVID. He is correct, because everything he did wrong far outstrips anything he did right.

But to be scrupulously fair, no matter who was president, this was going to be bad, and hundreds of thousands of Americans would have died. We’re not and can’t be New Zealand, a counrty with less population than Cook County, Illinois, and whose ignorant fringe is not imbued with as much political power as ours is, particularly in the previous administration. But even larger powers who did better than we did managing the virus still had surges and strained medical systems and thousands upon thousands of deaths. We absolutely could have done better — and should have done better, and if the previous president, his administration and his party had done better, he might still be president today, which is a terrifying thought. But it was never going to be good. That should be acknowledged.

Speaking of the previous administration, the fact that the plague hit during an election year in the United States either proves that God exists, and he’s an asshole, or that he’s dead and the universe is a capricious disaster zone. Between COVID and the election, a lot of people — myself included — felt like life was continually punching us in the face. I had hoped the election results in November would have brought at least partial relief but we all know how that went. I’m not going to call this March-to-March span the worst year or twelve months in history (within the last century alone 1939 is right there, picking its teeth), but in my own lifetime, it’s the year where external events really had an impact on my personal life, and my personal mental health.

And yes! Over the last year my mental health was not great. I was hopeful that as an introvert, basically staying in my home for a year seeing no one but family wouldn’t be that horrible. It mostly wasn’t, until suddenly it was. And then it was very bad for several days before it ebbed again. I went through several cycles of that.

I was equally hopeful that I would get a lot of work done since I was home anyway, and that didn’t go very well either. I did a lot of work, but a lot of that work wasn’t up to my standards in no small part because the year kept pulling focus. I’ve discussed the before, and I’m sure will again, so I won’t go over it in detail right now. Suffice to say angry, bored and shut in is no way to go through life, or to get creative things done.

(And of course I have to acknowledge that as these things go, I had it pretty easy. I was able to be with my spouse and kid, and we did have the means to weather this thing economically. We had the 1% version of the quarantine. And it still sucked.)

This March 11, the one in 2021, Ohio dropped the age of the people allowed to get a vaccine to 50, and did it at midnight. I just happened to wake up at about 1am and when I did, I went “oh, right,” got online and hunted down two vaccination appointments, one for me and one for Krissy. We’ll be getting Pfizered up on Tuesday. We’re not out of this thing yet, but I do think it’s a pleasingly resonant coincidence that March 11 serves as the day that both started me into my personal plague year, and serves as the day that is starting me out of it. It’s a nice set of bookends, as it were, and perfectly timed.

I hope that likewise you see your own “plague year” coming to an end soon. It’s been a very long year, and I’m happy to have concrete signs it’s coming to a close. Again: Not there yet. But soon enough. I’ll settle for that today.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Gabriela Houston

It’s not how you look on the outside, but what’s on the inside that makes you a monster. This is especially true in Gabriela Houston’s newest novel, The Second Bell. Explore Houston’s Big Idea with her as she tells you of a society that is terrified of monsters, yet is monstrous itself.


If everyone you’d ever met – your whole family, your friends, your neighbours, believed your child is a monster which must be expelled from the community, what would you do?

In The Second Bell, the humans of Heyne Town believe that any child born with two hearts—a striga—is a monster, which, should she be allowed to remain within the community, would grow in strength till her unholy powers inevitably manifested themselves in some catastrophic way. 

The only way such a disaster can be averted is to leave the infant on the edge of the striga forest, for the other strigas to find her. The mother is expected to forget about her baby, and count her blessings that the taint of her child does not extend to her. 

But every now and again, a mother decides to leave with her child, to brave the hostile world outside the safety of the town, and join the strigas in the mountains. Miriat, the mother in The Second Bell, makes just such a choice, breaking every taboo and law of her community in order to raise her daughter, Salka.

That is the initial premise of The Second Bell

The Big Idea behind the novel, however, is the natural question which arose from its starting point:

How hard is it to go against everything you’ve been taught to believe, when a conflicting loyalty arises? 

Miriat didn’t suddenly, magically, unlearn everything she’d been told since childhood about the strigas. Just because she feels the pull of maternal love for her infant doesn’t mean she’s suddenly had an epiphany that prejudice towards the strigas is wrong, and that love must prevail.

Humans don’t think like that.

Miriat makes the choice to join her daughter in banishment in spite of believing that there is potential for great evil residing within her child. In fact she shifts her internal concept of duty, from staying away from all strigas, towards protecting Salka from the evil inside, and to stop her daughter from becoming a monster at all cost.

The fear doesn’t just go away because love temporarily overrules it. And so it remains, pervading every element of life. 

The strigas, whose community Miriat joins, share the humans’ belief that they are, on a fundamental level, evil; that the only thing which will stop them from realising their dark potential is the rigid structure of laws and regulations, and that any transgressions must be severely punished for fear that any leniency might lead to disaster. 

The Big Idea I kept in mind when writing The Second Bell was, what – if anything – could finally have the power to overturn years of conviction? A conviction that has become central to a people’s identity, the core of what they consider their self-knowledge.

Love isn’t always enough to do it. Neither is friendship. Battling a belief that strong demands the shattering of one’s entire identity.

And then, once the old self is in ashes, it requires courage to build something new in its place. 

The Second Bell: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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