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The Big Idea: Sim Kern

The change of climate around the world brings a wide spectrum of thoughts and strategies about it — no less in fiction writing than anywhere else. In Real Sugar is Hard to Find, author Sim Kern is thinking about their own thoughts and strategies to bring the topic to their own writing, and what their own choices here mean.

SIM KERN:

Get two climate fiction authors together, and you’ll hear a debate about the most useful kind of climate fiction. We don’t fear the criticism of being “too didactic.” Rather, many of us have explicit agendas that we’re happy to debate at a moment’s notice—whether to communicate climate science, inspire people to action, or even dismantle global racial capitalism. One of my favorite cli-fi authors, Aya de León, author of A Spy in the Struggle, calls herself the “Minister of Climate-Justice-Fiction Propaganda.” We agree that everything is a culture war; stories are the most powerful weapons in a culture war; so if you’re trying to change the world, you better think critically about your themes.

Among sci-fi writers of climate fiction—those of us rendering how the biosphere and humans might adapt to climate change in the years to come—the recurring debate is: dystopia vs. utopia. Which genre is a better kind of propaganda?

There’s no question that dystopian worlds dominate both science fiction and near-future climate fiction. The old adage holds true: it’s easier to publish the end of the world than the end of (extractive, oil-soaked) capitalism. Solarpunk, however, is challenging dystopian domination. Mostly coming out of small presses or short story outlets, authors are increasingly envisioning radically optimistic, abolitionist, anti-capitalist, green and sustainable futures.

Dystopian cli-fi authors, meanwhile, are doing important work translating scientific climate predictions into narrative; setting urgent, human stories in hothouse, fire-drought-and-flood-ravaged worlds. A dystopian-leaning editor friend of mine recently announced he’s no longer interested in stories set in utopian worlds, because he just can’t suspend disbelief that our fossil fuel addiction gets magically solved in the next few years.

In this debate, I agree with everyone, even when their points are contradictory, because my feelings about climate change are contradictory. It isn’t useful to ask us to choose one modality over the other—despair or hope. I feel a huge range of emotions about living through mass extinction. I want to write and read stories that let me feel all the things. Real Sugar is Hard to Find, my collection of cli-fi stories, contains both dystopian and utopian worlds, and stories that fall somewhere in between.

The titular story, “Real Sugar is Hard to Find,” follows a mother and son’s quest to bake a cake for their suicidal family member, in a world where common baking ingredients are scarce. The story explores how climate change will disrupt agriculture and food supply, but it’s also a reminder to the climate nihilist inside me that there will be cake—and birthday parties, joy, jokes, dancing, babies, and falling in love—even during environmental collapse, even after 2 or 3 or more degrees of warming. For as long as there’s a handful of humans left, there will be joys worth celebrating.

“The Propagator” comes from a place of screaming rage about living under the threats of rising sea level and rising Christofascism. Set in a flooded, future Houston, a woman who is forced to carry an unviable pregnancy to term turns to a life of crime: propagating houseplants. In the soilless city, all reproduction is tightly controlled under a carceral surveillance state. Written in 2018, the story has proven horrifically prescient, as the protagonist mulls a cross-continental journey to obtain an abortion, fears even searching the term on the internet, and her job takes her to a designated “repro crimes” ward at a county jail.

We also need stories that don’t ask us to force a smile, or call us to action, or do anything—stories that simply let us grieve. “The Listener” is born from the grief I felt in the drought of 2008, when 300 million trees died across the state of Texas. The protagonist is a queer, closeted scene kid, kicked out of her house and in love with her best friend, who eats too many mushrooms and gains the ability to talk to trees. At a really bad time.

“The New Nomad” and “The Night Heron” unpack the torments of parenting in a time of ecological collapse, while the last two stories in the collection are wildly, unabashedly utopian. More than out of any political allegiance to the solarpunk movement, I wrote them because I was tired of both living in a dystopia and trying to imagine even-worse-dystopias in my head. Ironically, the less hope I feel for reality, the more I’m called to write optimistic futures. It’s looking increasingly likely that I won’t live to see a better world, but at least I can escape to one in my mind.

“The End of the Nuclear Era” presupposes a green, anti-capitalist revolution that’s already occurred, and explores what would happen if children had the right to free themselves from abusive, neglectful families. The story kicks off as a runaway teen approaches the gates to a “Children’s Center,” where any kid can show up and find food, lodging, safety, and education—no questions asked.

I dreamed up “The Lost Roads” while buckling my three-year-old into her car seat in the blistering Texas heat. The premise is: What if there were no roads? Fuck car culture. Fuck asphalt. What if we figured out green mass transit and purposeful communities, so we could dig up all the roads and rewild them? It’s a story of unbridled hope, joy, and reconciliation with the natural world and each other. 

Whatever you feel about climate change—despair, denial, grief, rage, hope, and fear—all those feelings are justified and valid and needed. So I guess my overarching “agenda” for Real Sugar is Hard to Find is to invite you to feel those feelings along with me. Hopefully, these stories offer some badly-needed catharsis as we stand amidst climate change and mass-extinction and wonder how much worse things are going to get before (and if!) they ever get better.


Real Sugar is Hard to Find: Publisher | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Visit the author’s website. Follow them on Twitter.

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Upscaling and an Important Note About Photo “AI”

One of these is a photo. One is a digital illustration.

Because I’m a digital photography nerd, I have a lot of programs and Photoshop plugins designed to tweak photos and make them better, or, maybe more accurately, less obviously bad. One of the hot new sectors of digital photography programs is the one where “Artificial Intelligence” is employed to do all manner of things, including colorizing, editing and upscaling. Some of this is baked into Photoshop directly — Adobe has a “Neural Filters” section for this — while other companies are supplying standalone programs and plugins.

Truth be told, all of these companies have been touting “AI” for a while now. But in the last couple of iterations of these tools and programs, there’s been a real leap in… well, something, anyway. The quality of the output of these tools has become strikingly better.

As an example, I present to you the before and after picture above. The original picture on the left was a 200-pixel-wide photo of Athena as a toddler. There had been a larger version of it way back when, but I had cropped it way down for an era when monitors were 640 x 480, and then tossed or misplaced the original photo. So the blocky, blotchy low-resolution picture of my kid is the only one I have now. The picture on the right is a 4x upscaling using a program called Topaz GigaPixel AI, which takes the information from the original picture, and using “AI,” makes guesses at what the picture should look like at a higher resolution, then applies those guesses. In this case, it guessed pretty darn well.

Which is remarkable to me, because even just a couple iterations of the GigaPixel program back, it wasn’t doing that great of a job to my eye — it could smooth out jagged edges on photos just fine, but it was questionable on patterns and tended to make a hash of faces. Its primary utility was that it could do “just okay” attempts at upscaling much faster than I could do that “just okay” work on my own. This iteration of the program, however, does better than “just okay,” more frequently than not, and now does things well beyond my own skill level.

It’s still not perfect; some other pictures of Athena from this era that I upsampled didn’t quite guess her face correctly, so she didn’t look as much like she actually did at the time, and more like a generic toddler. But that generic toddler looked perfectly reasonable, and not like a machine-generated mess. That counts as an improvement.

Now, it’s important to acknowledge a thing about these new “AI”-assisted pictures, which is that they are no longer photographs. They’re something different, closer to a digital illustration than anything else. The upscaled picture of Athena here is the automated equivalent of an artist making an airbrushed painting of my kid based on a tiny old photo. It’s good, and it’s pretty accurate, and I’m glad I have a larger version of that tiny image. But it’s not a photograph anymore. It’s an illustrated guess at what a more detailed version of the photograph would have been.

Is this a problem? Outside of a courtroom, probably not. But it’s still worth remembering that the already-extremely-permeable line between photograph and illustration is now even more so. Also, if you weren’t doing so already, you should treat any “photo” you see as an illustration until and unless you can see the provenance, or it’s from a trusted source. This is why, incidentally, AP and most other news organizations have strict limits on how photos can be altered. I’d guess that a 4x “AI”-assisted enhancement would fall well outside the organization’s definition of acceptable alteration. So, you know, build that into your world view. In a world of social media filters turning people into cats or switching their gender presentation, this internalization may not be as much of a sticking point as it once was.

With that said, it’s still a pretty nifty thing, and I will play with it a lot now, especially for older, smaller digital pictures I have, and to (intentionally) make illustrations that are based from those upscaled originals. I’m glad to have the capability. And that capability is only going to get more advanced from here.

— JS

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Spice, the Mighty Hunter

I came downstairs this morning to Spice on the kitchen counter, which is a place she is generally never on, so I figured something was up. Sure enough, Spice was hunting prey, in this case an adult antlion, which had positioned itself just out of paw-swatting reach. The antlion was escorted outside via a small plastic container; the cat was escorted to the floor, mildly protesting all the way, by my hands. No one died, and nothing on the counter was destroyed by a fast-moving predator. And Spice was praised and petted for her diligence in keeping the house safe from invaders. So in all, a good morning for everyone.

— JS

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I Was Left Unsupervised: A Twitter Thread

Recorded here for posterity, which will question why I bothered.


I have been left unsupervised.

They say we have strayed from the sight of God. I say, God sees all… And chooses inaction.

It is time to move humanity out of its comfort zone, beyond its antiquated ideas of what should and should not be. A new age is dawning. You are all witnesses.

NO GODS
NO RULERS
BECOME UNGOVERNABLE

They say genius is not understood in its time

https://video.twimg.com/ext_tw_video/1550939116472344578/pu/vid/720x960/XKcuIshT-8LksX7P.mp4?tag=14

Finally I know the infinite awe of Robert Oppenheimer as he beheld his terrible creation

We pause to let the flavors steep for a bit. Here's a dog whilst we wait.

Back to it

First, split the banana lengthwise and set it on the tortilla.

Step two: add the mayoreo to the center of the split banana.

Step three: time to add the gherkins!

Step four: lightly nestle macaroni salad to the side of the mayoreo-and-gherkin-filled banana.

Step five: gummy chicken feet at both ends of the banana, because, I mean, OBVIOUSLY

Step six: wrapped and rolled and into the microwave

https://video.twimg.com/ext_tw_video/1550952746223796227/pu/vid/1920x1080/oxDjV8ZTW73mH4k8.mp4?tag=14

Step seven: garnished with whipped cream and crushed Oreos. Charlie silently bears witness to history.

The all-important cross-section.

And now the moment you've all been waiting for and/or fearing was inevitable: the taste test.

https://video.twimg.com/ext_tw_video/1550955724066504704/pu/vid/720x1280/GC0pEqzBpKx7u3nv.mp4?tag=14

Epilogue: To atone for my sins, I have made a donation to a local food panty serving my county. If you have somehow made it to the end of this thread, I encourage you to do likewise in your own community.

Also: Don't make Mayoreo. It's not good. Thank you.

/end

(Food pantry, not food panty. LOOK I HAVE A STOMACHACHE OKAY)

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on July 23, 2022.

— JS

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I Was Going to Write Something Today But Then I Sat Down to Write It and Forgot Was I Was Going to Write About, I Blame COVID Even Though I Am Almost Entirely Over It Now, Anyway, Here’s a Hibiscus

In fact, today was the first day I got real serious work done on the novel in, like, forever, so blaming COVID for having a brain fart here feels even less sincere than it might have been previous. Although I suppose I could say I spent all my writing coins today on pay copy. Yeah, that’s it. That’s what I’m going with. The hibiscus is pretty, at least.

— JS

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An Imperfect Apple

While walking the dog earlier today we walked by the neighbor’s apple trees, on which apple are coming in nicely but are not yet ready to be eaten. One thing I note about all the apples is that, even in this still-early stage of growth they are, largely, wildly misshapen and would never make the cut for a supermarket produce section. It doesn’t mean they won’t taste good (previous apples from other years confirm they do), it just means that they are lumpy and gnarled and would be destined for applesauce or juice or some other end where their cosmetics don’t matter.

I will still eat them, happily, however, with my neighbor’s say-so. I reject artificial beauty standards for real fruit! Long live ugly apples! Until, uh, I get them in my belly, anyway.

This post is clearly written so I can have an excuse to post this picture of an apple. Lumpy or not, I think it looks pretty cool.

— JS

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Hitting the Big Time, Musically

I was curious about getting my musical compositions onto streaming services, and I was recommended DistroKid to do this — for a flat annual fee they will get your music up onto just about every service that streams music. I went ahead and used my most recent musical track (now subtitled “The Vince Clarke Fan Club Convenes”) as a guinea pig to see how DistroKid did in delivering the piece to the waiting masses.

The answer: Pretty well. My piece hit Tidal in under an hour and was on Spotify and other major services less than 24 hours later. DistroKid also connected the piece to previously existing musician profiles on most of the major services, and gave me access to Spotify’s artist portal, so I could update my musician page there, which I was never able to do before. And then they even generated a cute little graphic (see above) that I could use to promote the piece.

They also had me price the track for the stores that still MP3s (Amazon, for example), so I set it to 69 cents (I know, I know: “Nice”). That said, I don’t actually recommend you purchase the track for actual money. Just stream it, and if you really want the mp3 of it, here it is for free. If I put together something I think is actually worth your money, musically speaking, I’ll let you all know.

The one drawback to DistroKid that I can see is that if you stop paying it the annual fee, then all the music you distribute through them apparently falls off the service (unless you pay an extra one time fee to keep it up, which one assumes you would have to do for each track uploaded). This isn’t a problem for me, since my current plan is less than $40 a year. But there’s nothing to say that can’t go up, perhaps dramatically, over the course of time. It’s something to be aware of.

Otherwise, I’m satisfied with how it works. I’m not likely to send every noodle-y musical composition I put together to the streaming services, but it’s nice to know that when I have something I would like to share there, I have a simple, efficient and relatively cheap way to do it.

— JS

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Some New Music From Me, For You

Because I was fiddling around with my musical instruments today, that’s why, and was feeling a bit synth-y and Vince Clarke-ish. I actually played every instrument on this track, save the drums, which were your basic EDM beat out of a drum machine. It doesn’t have a name other than “7/16/22” because apparently I used all my creativity on the track. Maybe I’ll give an actual name somewhere. No, I’m not giving up my day job. But I’m having fun, which is the important thing. Enjoy.

Also, if you like it, here’s an mp3 file of it.

— JS

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Making the Call on the 2023 Worldcon

For various reasons, I was already leaning against physically attending the 2023 Worldcon in Chengdu, China, but now, a little over a year out and with other organizations querying me about appearances in the same timeframe, I should more firmly note that I won’t be on the ground at the 2023 Worldcon.

I will say that aside from any other reasons, at this point the two primary reasons for this decision are purely practical. One, air travel is currently a mess, and no matter what the airlines say about it, I’m not optimistic it’s going to be all that much better a year from now. That’s currently bad enough domestically, when flights are being cancelled en masse, and realistically one has to budget an entire extra day for travel (both Athena and I had overnight delays due to cancellations on our last flights). Dealing with international delays or cancellations from halfway around the world seems like a good way to lose a week.

Two, COVID is still actually a thing and the most recent variants of it have the transmissibility of measles. There’s little reason to believe either that we’ll have the virus contained by next year, or that strains a year from now will be more mild (I will still get boosters when available, to significantly reduce the chance that I’ll be hospitalized – or dead – if I am reinfected). Given all this, the idea of testing positive for the virus in China, with few personal resources or the ability to easily navigate the local medical options, and then trying to return home on rescheduled flights, does not thrill me.

It’s possible things will be better on both fronts a year from now, and these concerns are overstated. I hope I am wrong, in fact! Be that as it may, I have to make choices now about what I’m doing in a year. I’d rather be wrong, and at home, than right, and stuck (and possibly very ill) on the other side of the globe.

When the stars align in these and other areas, I would love to be able to visit China, and spend more than a few days to explore that vast and hugely interesting country. That visit, I’m sorry to say, won’t be in 2023. I hope the people who do choose to attend have a fantastic time, and that I’m seethingly jealous of the fun they are having in Chengdu.

— JS

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Sunset, 7/11/22

This feels in many ways like the platonic ideal of a sunset. It certainly was lovely to look at. I’m delighted to get to share it with you now.

— JS

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It Seems Unfathomable I Have Gotten This Far Into the Summer Without Posting a Hibiscus Picture Here, and Yet I Have Not, There is No Excuse For It, I Am So Sorry

Here, this should remedy the situation. And there are two blooms, so clearly I’m catching up in bulk.

It’s been a lovely couple of days here. Hope they have been lovely for you as well.

— JS

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Sky, Tree, Dog, Grass

Wherever you are in the world at the moment, I hope you can enjoy and appreciate this small moment of bucolic Midwest splendor.

That’s what I have for this Saturday, but I think it’s enough. Look, a dog! And a tree! What more do you need?

— JS

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A Brief Moment for Sunflowers

Athena bought them for her mother, which I though was kind of her. They certainly stand out.

That’s it, that’s the post. Just thought you could use some sunflowers in your day.

— JS

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Today in “Scalzi Going Overboard With His New Photoshop Filter Plugin”

The application in question is called Filter Forge, which features thousands of filters, mostly created by the community which uses the program. Many of these filters are… well, not great, but some of them are pretty cool, especially when you layer them on top of each other. Thus, a selfie of me just sitting in my office has become The Most Pretentious Horror Author Photo of 1998. All it took was about five minutes of fiddling about. This is what I did with my day. I’m not proud. But I am having mostly harmless fun. So that’s okay.

Also, here’s this one of my cat. Which is also overdone, and also kinda fun:

In other news, I feel completely fine now. I suppose I should get back to writing again.

(Reluctantly puts away Photoshop)

— JS

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Hey Scalzi, What’s Up With the Church?

Funny you should ask, I was just over there to take a look. We are (hopefully) in the end game of renovation; all the major foundational things have been addressed, including a few not-exactly-welcome surprise issues — because there are always surprise issues with 80-year-old structures — and at this point everything left to do is (mostly) cosmetic. Some of these are less cosmetic than others (for example, the railing for the balcony, so people don’t, you know, fall from a largish height), but in all there’s a schedule and with luck (again, this being a major renovation), we’ll keep to it.

When the renovation is done, we won’t be done with everything we have to do, because then we actually have to furnish and prep it for use, and that will take more time and money. I reiterate: If you’re wondering what my new expensive hobby is, here you go. I’m still pretty excited about it, I have to say.

Hope your Independence Day weekend (if you’re in the US, first weekend of July everywhere else) is going swimmingly.

— JS

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Status Update, 7/1/22

For the second day in a row, I feel perfectly fine; still a little tired, but at this point I suspect that has more to do with being on my ass for the last couple of weeks as it does with having been sick. My brain is also waking up a bit more, which is important for my line of work. I’m not planning to run a marathon anytime soon, but I feel pretty positive (so to speak) that the worst of it is behind me.

Which is nice because the last couple of weeks have been a total loss, writing-wise, and that book I have due is not going to write itself, ALAS. My editor has been super-cool about telling me not to stress myself and to recover, which I appreciate. That said, I’m behind and I’m getting antsy. I am going to be mindful of not overtaxing my brain; also, I’ve gone about as far on the “doing nothing” train as I can handle. I’m super lazy, but it turns out there’s a difference between “lazy” and “enforced inactivity.” Two weeks of the latter seems my limit.

It’s a national holiday weekend, so I expect I’ll spend a large portion of it being mellow, and keeping my pets from freaking out about explosions. After that: Back into the swing of things, I think, gently as possible. It’s time.

— JS

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Authors Talking About Politics: An Archived Twitter Thread

I’ve written about this subject extensively here on Whatever over the years, but it’s worth saying again here in 2022, and also, not everyone who follows me on Twitter comes over here. I posted this tonight over there, and am reposting here for archival purposes and because not everyone here goes over to Twitter.


1. Over on Facebook a post is being passed around in which an author is telling other authors not to take political positions because our job is to entertain, not alienate “half our readers.” So, let me speak on this general concept of authors shutting up and staying in lanes.

2. Basically: Nah. Don’t shut up, if you would prefer to speak. Also, as a human here on Earth in 2022, you’re in a bunch of “lanes” including “a political stakeholder who has opinions on events that affect their life.” You may decide that “lane” is the important one right now.

3. Will you alienate readers expressing political opinions? Sure. But, as someone who once received a flaming kiss-off from a reader for expressing a mild operating software preference, I assure you that you can alienate readers by expressing any opinion on anything whatsoever.

4. You could try to never express an opinion on anything ever again, including in your writing (this is a neat trick if you can manage it, good luck with it), but living a life of never publicly expressing an opinion so as to never lose a sale seems enervating and futile to me.

5. Also, think about the math for a second, for crying out loud. To grossly oversimplify: The US adult readership is about 200 million people. If you alienate “half of them” by talking politics, you have 100 million left. 99+% of books sell 20k copies or less. YOU WILL BE FINE.

6. More realistically, the market pool for any book will be smaller based on genre, etc. But even then, if you lost “half” the potential readership, you’d still have more readers available to you than you are likely to sell to, even if you are a genre or mainstream bestseller.

7. But you want to sell more! Well, good for you! Also, have you noticed that bestselling authors on social media tend to be a politically mouthy bunch? It’s almost as if their having a loud public political opinion did not impede their book sales! Curious, that!

8. Also, look: you could lose readers by expressing opinions. You can also gain them. There are readers who factor a similar worldview into their purchase choices, or when trying out new authors. Other readers don’t care. In my experience, these things even out in the wash.

9. You don’t have to express political or other opinions out loud if that’s not how you roll. Be who you are. But that is how you roll, don’t limit yourself because of worries about sales. I suspect you will also find being your authentic self is important in the long run.

10. On a personal level: With full acknowledgment of who I am and the privileges I get because of it, I have a full and extensive history of being publicly political, long before I was writing books. Lots of people wish I would shut up. But it’s not their call and it’s my choice.

11. I could not and can not in good conscience be silent about politics and the world, especially now, when fellow Americans are having their rights stripped from them by cowards and bigots and fools. I will speak and not give a damn how many sales I lose. This is an easy choice.

12. So, yeah. Speak your mind, authors, if that what you think the moment requires of you. You don’t need to be silent against your will, just for the sake of a sale.

And now, to close the thread, as always, here's a cat.

/end

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on June 27, 2022.

— JS

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Status Update: 6/26/22

Still on the plateau of meh. It’s the good side of awful and the bad side of okay, if you grasp what I’m saying. Today, I’m mostly just feeling tired, which corresponds with me being extremely bored with resting up. But there’s nothing for it. I understand the secret to keep COVID from messing with you in the long term is actually listening to your body about it in the short term. So I will be napping soon, is what I’m saying.

— JS

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Today’s Court Case

I have COVID and my brain is not in a place to write anything substantive about it right now. So I will say what I already noted on Twitter: This court will continue to take rights from Americans as soon as it can. If you’re an American and you don’t think that this will affect you or someone you love, you’re a fool.

More perhaps later when I have more brain for it. In the meantime, I’m disabling comments on this post because if I’m not in a mental place to write substantively on this topic, I’m also not in a place to ride herd over a comment thread.

— JS

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Status Update, 6/24/22

I feel… meh. Mostly fuzzy and distracted and a little ache-y. I have congestion and a runny nose. I don’t feel horrible, but I certainly don’t feel good. I do retain my sense of smell and taste so far, so that’s a good thing. I think it’s accurate to say the thing I feel most at the moment is boredom and restlessness, since apparently COVID for me combines a desire to focus on things with a complete inability to focus. Sneaky COVID!

The good news, such as it is, is that I don’t feel any worse today than I did yesterday. It’s a perfectly reasonable plateau of meh, and I’m okay being here rather than, you know, feeling worse. My plan for the day is to do more of nothing, take some naps, have some ice cream and otherwise let my body to its recuperating things. I think it’s a good plan. I’ll let you know how it works out.

— JS

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