2020

Days, weeks and months- if there were any age old institutions that fell this year it was these long established divisions of the calendar. The entire world paused halfway through March, and the timeless morass that followed could not be measured in these increments. It fell to each individual to make their own routine demarcations.

I separated 2020 into different walking routes; roughly eight different journeys which I stuck to for varying lengths. Some were brief; some felt like entire years unto themselves. These were those journeys.

The Untethered State (Jan 5 – Mar 18)

I returned to my bed in the early hours of New Year’s Day metaphorically bloodied and raw, and literally embarrassed. I had unloaded my stress and anxiety onto some poor help line operator who was likely already swamped with much more serious calls, and I didn’t even feel better afterwards.

My New Year’s resolution was simple: put the past away. I was not going to expose myself to anything nostalgic that would remind me of the past decade. This included not just music from the 2010s, but any music I’d regularly listened to in the 2010s. It turned out to be easier than I thought it would be- what was more difficult was avoiding places I’d frequented over the years. I didn’t want to go anywhere teeming with memories.

My daily and nightly walks would have to be adjusted, so on the very first day of January I went searching for new routes to explore. I started off by going to the woodlot where I used to walk around in my childhood, and found it uninspiring. I gave it a few chances at different times of day but each time it just didn’t feel right.

One night I fell through some ice over a dirt pit and when climbing out got stuck in a large snowdrift. I thought about staying there. Then I saw some streetlamps in the distance that looked cool, so I decided that I wouldn’t turn myself into a Dustsicle that night. I went over and took a few pictures of the lamps with my phone, where I saw even further in the distance I the water tower standing like an ominous beacon in the darkness and wanted pictures of it as well. I trekked over to it and that’s where I found the entrance to the Untethered State.

I’d been in this area before over the years, taking walks with my dog or making videos or doing photoshoots. But I’d never been there at night, much less a winter’s night. The snow turned the vast field into a landscape that genuinely took my breath away. A province of shadows that looked like a Nordic wasteland, or Siberia by way of Mars. I made sure to avoid listening to any music there, leaving it unattached, untainted, untethered. I never saw anyone else, because come on- what kind of weirdo would walk around the wilderness at night? It was just me, walking around and taking in the beauty of a silent sepia-toned dream perfect as an escape from the real world.

A real world that was getting increasingly worse. Fires in Australia, fighting in Iran, a mysterious new flu in China- the planet’s year was not off to a good start. Neither was my own year.

Professionally speaking things were amazing. As I grew in my new role I started getting more responsibilities and opportunities. I was sent to Hamilton, Kingston and London to help other stations’ morning shows with digital content. I was in charge of filming interviews and met various big artists and celebrities. My work was being seen by more and more people, impressing them and inspiring me to make it better. A positive feedback loop, if you will. I boosted station engagement, pulled in big numbers, and got standing ovations during the company’s ratings meetings.

For the first time in over 15 years I had weekends entirely to myself. Of course I’d spend the nights at the Untethered State, but that left about ten hours of the day to somehow remain occupied.

But there was nothing. I had no life outside of work, nothing to occupy myself with. When I wasn’t sleeping I was constantly in tears- and eventually the tears came even while I slept. I’d make a video for my social platforms sometimes, and then right back to sitting begging the universe for one good day and waiting for Monday to come.

Work started to drag a bit. The Edge morning show hosts were fired and morale plummeted, creating a tension in the office. My neighbours in the cubicle area beside mine were obnoxious, horrible people. I no longer saw my friends from GNR640, aside from a few precious Saturday nights when I was called in to cover for some shifts. That studio was my place, and sitting in front of the control board in that warm dark studio was a shot of endorphins right into my brain.

Not like the anti-endorphins I got when life cruelly put me in places I didn’t want to be. Like when a train broke down and I ended up in Richmond Hill walking past one painful memory after another. Or when I had to act as photographer at a Jim Cuddy show at the Danforth Music Hall. Normally that would make me ecstatic, but instead I spent the time before the show trying desperately to walk around somewhere in the area that wouldn’t make me weep on the inside.

I decided to try retail therapy with my higher income. I bought some new clothes, a new mattress, a new comforter, and an essential oil diffuser- all to increase my comfort to the max.

My friend SciFi introduced me to the world of TikTok, encouraging me to post my videos on it. I had moderate success and it boosted my spirits a little bit.

Work picked up a little as I eagerly jumped at the chance to do any sort of project outside of my routine. Hamilton, Ajax, or just in a previously unexplored corner of the building. Anything new and irregular and out of the ordinary was fine by me.

Ottawa was definitely out of the ordinary, and I got to go on my first plane in nearly a decade when I was sent there to give a social media seminar to the entire staff of the company’s two stations there. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and kind and the whole experience was fantastic and exactly what my life needed.

The Edge got a new morning show and it turned out to be the folks I’d met when I’d gone to Hamilton in early January. They were great people and very proactive with their creative ideas, leading to some fun videos. Morale climbed higher in the office, until mid-March when the World Health Organization declared a worldwide pandemic.

 

Up Street and Down Street (Mar 18 – May 12)

With the snow melted, going to the Untethered State was no longer an option. The grass was swampy, and there was no snow to reflect the moonlight and provide some visibility. Plus now there’d be people walking around everywhere as the days got longer, and my solitude would be interrupted. So I decided to alternate between two routes to keep things fresh. I’d go either up the street or down the street, thinking that would be enough variety.

Something that would become a scarce commodity in the coming months. There’s not much variety when you’re stuck at home due to a viral plague sweeping the Earth.

I was told to grab all the equipment I needed from the office one Sunday in March, heading down to a ghost city that night. I took some cameras, looked around at the eerily empty streets, then left Union Station. I wouldn’t see it all again for a very long time.

At first the lockdown was awesome. I loved it. Working remotely meant no commute, no driving, no annoying people beside me in the office, no waking up early, no lugging around equipment or transferring files or setting aside time to shoot videos, no constant fake smiles to hide my anxiety. Most importantly, no going to old places and being hit with nostalgia. No annual events reminding me of the unstoppable march of time. It was a little bit of a pause on life, and I was totally down for a pause if it meant it would reduce the spread of the virus.

Of course, as the movie guy said: “life finds a way”.

And by that I mean life finds a way to make things suck even when I try my best to be positive about them. I thought the world being in lockdown would mean things would pause instead of moving on without me as they had my entire life.

The playing field didn’t level. Now instead of not getting invited to bars I was not getting invited to Zoom group chats. Nobody messaged me to see how I was holding up. Nobody tagged me in challenges or old pictures. Everyone was alone, but I was extra alone. And I was filled with constant dread realizing that my life was the same before the pandemic as it was during the pandemic, and would be the same after the pandemic.

The first few work projects in this new format kept me from totally losing my mind. Having the on-air talent send over their own video saved me a lot of time and my productivity doubled. Plus everyone had fresh material and new ideas and the stations’ audiences loved everything I posted.

The novelty faded quickly – in every respect. The on-air talent got unmotivated. The public wondered how long this lockdown was gonna go on for. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer jokes got boring. And my mental state deteriorated exponentially.

I developed major nervous tics like wringing my hands and digging my nails into my palms. I forgot how to speak to people. I was exhausted from walking the same routes night after night and thinking the same sad thoughts over and over and over without respite.

I woke up Easter Monday morning nauseous and sick from loneliness. I just didn’t want to exist anymore. I went on my usual tour of the social media feeds to see how great everyone else’s life was and noticed I had a lot of notifications on Twitter. It turned out John Oliver had played one of my videos on Last Week Tonight and I’d gone semi-viral.

That was enough to reinvigorate me for about two weeks. A retweet from Smash Mouth in early May added another few days of good mood. But there were a lot more days after that…

 

The Forest (May 12 – July 1)

I was on the brink of collapse by mid-May. Two months of the same settings and virtually no contact with anyone other than coworkers had eaten away my mind. With nature beginning to bloom I added the local woodlot and surrounding streets to my walking routes. It was still uninspiring and didn’t help much, but at this point I was at rock bottom and willing to make any change just to add some kind of meaning to the days.

Then my birthday happened. Or rather, didn’t happen.

I did not receive one birthday text message. Even though I’d been constantly entertaining everyone online through the lockdown, I still was not a meaningful factor in anyone’s life. There were about 10 people I was expecting to hear from and not one reached out. I kept waiting for my phone to buzz and see “Hey sorry for disappearing on you, it’s been a while, let’s catch up soon”, but nothing came all day.

I broke down and blacked out.

When I came to, I booked a week off work. There was no way I could be productive at that point; every waking moment I was so sad I wanted to vomit.

I walked west one day, to a trail I hadn’t realized earlier was accessible to the public. It was already teeming with bugs by that point in the year, but generically pleasant. There was one nice moment where the forest cover broke and a warm breeze swept across the path. I reached the end, sat on a hillside for half an hour, then went back home.

Things stayed the same.

June was so repetitive I felt like I relived the same week four times, but it was also mercifully short. I went through the motions, burnt out and nihilistic, until finally things changed a little.

Over the course of the lockdown I hadn’t driven anywhere and my car’s battery completely died. I wasn’t able to replace it however, because Canadian Tire wasn’t open. I couldn’t buy a new battery online because they required me to physically leave my old one for proper disposal. It was one of those no-win situations life loves to hand me.

When I finally replaced the battery I was desperate to drive anywhere. Or nowhere. I just wanted to drive around listening to my music without a destination in mind.

My subconscious led me to the GO station parking garage though, a place I’d gone to many times over the years to be alone. The first few nights I just sat in my car and watched the sunset. The fourth night I left my car and walked to the plaza where my former therapist’s office was. I wondered how she was doing now. I then walked a little further, to Town Hall, and saw the entry point to the region’s massive trail system, the initial portion being the town’s famed Arboretum. 

 

The Arboretum (July 1 -July 24)

Things got better after Canada Day. I don’t know how or why. Maybe it was a combination of new scenery, warm summer nights, and the idea that the halfway point of the year is a fresh start. I just know that the dread and anxiety and general uncomfortable feelings subsided and I felt better, even if life generally stayed the same.

My friend Benji was the first to contact me, and from that point onward I managed to keep a steady flow of messaging going between us. My friend SciFi was next, and she invited me to her going-away get-together in the Canary District downtown.

Other than that, summer was uneventful. I maintained sanity by exploring this wonderful new area filled with plants and ponds and golden sunsets and scenic boardwalks, listening to the new Phoebe Bridgers album and Garrison Keillor speeches. My tension melted away. Life was tolerable.

 

The Long Parking Lot (July 24 – Sep 1)

I became afraid of wearing out the novelty of the Arboretum, so I decided to only drive there on the weekends rather than daily. On weekdays I switched my walking route to the neighbourhood surrounding the GO station and the very long parking lot. Summer began to wind down, and a little bit of that magic disappeared. I was sent to do some video work in Hamilton for a day, an adventure I was very much up for. The day would have been notable regardless, being one of the few days I was out in public during the year, but it became much more than that due to a text I got while getting a shot of the city’s cathedral. I pulled out my phone and my heart leapt into my throat: it was from Sierra.

On Wednesday August 26th I pulled up into her driveway, but I didn’t wait in the car like I used to. The second I saw her I walked over and we kissed, exactly like all those movie scenes.

I knew this wouldn’t last. Due to a personal situation she’d told me about, I realized that this wouldn’t be a restart of our weekly meetings. Even though we talked about plans and adventures and finally going on our first official date, I had a feeling this night would be it. So I told her everything I’d wanted to tell her. I had absolutely no apprehension as I finally lived out that scenario I’d been playing in my head. I gave her the gifts I’d gotten for Christmas and her birthday. We caught up and laughed and it was exactly as I wanted. It was like some weird moment completely detached from time, like I’d stepped into a time machine and gotten that “one last dance” I’d been begging the universe for. Of course it wasn’t ideal- I wanted to see her every day indefinitely – but it gave me the closure I needed.

Then I dropped her off back at her house, kissed her goodnight, and drove home. I didn’t see her again for the rest of the year.

 

The Old Town (Sep 1 – Oct 20)

On that bittersweet note September started and I needed a clean, definitive change. Also, the GO rent-a-cops got mad that I kept parking in the lot without going on the trains.

So I began walking in the northwestern quadrant of the town, filled with the area’s earliest buildings. It wasn’t particularly glamourous, but it was pretty neat walking among century-old homes.

Life was alright for a minute. My sister came home from England so I finally had someone to regularly talk to. Work got busy with fall’s digital promo campaigns, all which I launched successfully. The audio from one of my personal videos was featured as a segment on a GNR640 talk show. 

Q107 was #1 in the ratings, something I was repeatedly told was attributed to my work during the virtual celebrations. I got my very first gift basket and a nice raise to go with it.

So that was all good stuff. But then things got…strange.

In one afternoon two birds hit my window and both of them died while I tried to save them. I got very upset, and then after that unsettling things continued to happen. I almost got T-Boned at an intersection. My neighbour I’d known for nearly two decades passed away suddenly. There was a series of break-ins and suspicious activity in our neighbourhood. Things just felt off. 

On Thanksgiving I decided to explore like I’d never explored before. I walked the entire trail system in one day, going past the Arboretum and through three entire towns. It was a nearly 50km trek, and although I enjoyed it I think the rainstorm that caught me made me very sick.

Of course, it’s not a trademark Bad Year for Dusty without some tooth problems, and I got another infection in my jaw which worked in tandem with my strep throat to create a very bad time for me. I had to get periapical surgery, and while driving to the endodontist found that my car was also not healthy.

Because of course it’s not a trademark Bad Year for Dusty without some car problems. But while all the work on my jaw and teeth was covered by insurance, my multiple visits to Midas were not. A thousand bucks was gone real quick once the mechanics were through with it.

 

Up Street Remixed (Oct 20 – Nov 30)

I decided to give my car a break and stopped driving to the olden neighbourhood for walks, opting to walk around nearby once again. Since I was doing a little better mentally, I could handle the tedious repetition. Save for one nightmarish night when the power went out and the streets looked like some kind of Lovecraftian dead planet.

Plus now I had a new companion to walk around with- a small Jack Russell Terrier named Tupi. An absolute terror, but an adorable one.

In between making sure Tupi wasn’t destroying everything in sight and making sure she wasn’t destroying everything out of sight, I somehow managed to get attached to a national promo campaign for a company-wide initiative. It was an honour, but it was also a little frustrating making constant revisions for 14 different radio stations – and one TV station –  across the country. But at least I can say my work’s been on Global Peterborough.

Life had one more spiteful surprise for me in 2020, seemingly tailor-made to irritate me as much as possible. As a content creator, one of the most important things in my workflow are the platforms I present my content on. It’s not really conducive to my process when those platforms get taken away.

So I was kind of mad when my Instagram account got hacked and deleted for absolutely no reason. One of my only connections to the outside world, gone without warning.

I started a new account and began to rebuild.

Then my YouTube channel got hacked as well. And this very website too. It seemed like life was really intent on destroying my digital presence. I managed to get regain control of these two within a few days. My Insta remained deleted.

 

The Old Town but make it Christmas (Dec 1 – Dec 31)

December was very chill. Other than one blitz of video creation, my workload was pretty light. With all the extra time I decided to drive out into the world and returned to the olden neighbourhood for some very long walks.

Let me tell you about the old coat. The old coat was an incredibly oversized artifact from the mid-late 2000s that I only stopped wearing because it was unstylish. Now that style was irrelevant in this post-pandemic world, I could wear anything and this was ideal. It was bulky but relaxed, warm with about a million pockets, and comfortable in ways both physical and emotional. It was like an old friend had returned. 

Another old friend that returned was the producer of the comedy talk show from GNR640. Reaching out to me through my (new) Instagram account, he said how much he enjoyed all my videos and wanted to interview me for the show. Something that really proved how important having a social media account is to creators- he would not have a way to see my content or contact me if it were not for it.

A small Christmas miracle happened the night before the interview and thanks to my persistent runs through the appeal process my original account was reinstated and I was able to promote it on the show.

I was also able to promote myself on two of the four radio station accounts I control, being told by upper management that I had total creative liberty to come up with some promotional spots, including putting myself in the videos.

Christmas itself was OK, though a little sad. I spent Christmas Eve taking a detour from my walk and ending up in a rundown part of town. The setting in conjunction with the rain, lack of snow, and me listening to Hole’s Live Through This on my iPod made it a little bleak.

Once again I didn’t get any texts or messages from my friends or colleagues, even as every single person felt the need to post the very heartwarming “sending love to those who need it” meme. I received exactly one text on Christmas Day, from an unknown number. At first glance it seemed to be directed to me specifically, talking about luck and joy and improving my life. I had no idea who it could be, seeing as I had all my contacts labelled. Maybe it was one of them “guardian angels” or some kind of weird sign from the universe to stop me from feeling totally alone.

It turned out later that it was sent to a wrong number.

So after that whole year, I still was not an important part of anyone’s life.

Strangely enough, it didn’t phase me as much as it had on my birthday. I was just too burnt out to care anymore.

On New Year’s Eve I made a video, watched a few movies, switched it to the Times Square TV celebration to see midnight come around, then went to sleep.