Shifting stressors during the pandemic

The big project at work wrapped last Wednesday. I was essentially lead project manager on it, directing a gaggle of engineers and managing expectations with executives. It was a lot of work on a “you’ve got to be kidding me” deadline. Planning and executing it consumed me, especially in the last week or so as things heated up. But we delivered it just a few days past the deadline (on a project like this, that’s considered successful) and everything worked.

I was spent by the time it ended, so I took Thursday and Friday off. I thought I’d sleep late, make some photographs, write a little in this blog, and putter around the house. It was going to be five luxurious days of restorative downtime, and I was so ready.

Instead on Thursday I found myself power washing the deck so we could stain it. I guess I didn’t know that this project, which my wife and I had been talking about, was going to be this weekend.

On Friday I ran a frustrating and unsuccessful errand for my wife’s upcoming birthday that ate up my morning. But in the afternoon I developed and scanned some film, and I aired up my bike’s tires and went for the first ride of the season. That was great.

I couldn’t sleep late. In the last few weeks of the project, enough tension and stress built up that I struggled to let go and sleep. I managed five or six hours most nights, always interrupted by up to an hour and a half awake somewhere in the middle. I thought when the project ended I’d sleep deeply for a couple nights and be back on track, but instead my messed-up sleep pattern continued. I couldn’t shed the accumulated stress.

Saturday I crashed, and hard. I felt terrible all day. I managed the weekly grocery shopping and my laundry, but I was extremely irritable and my body ached all over. I needed to stop. My wife was staining the deck, and I know she hoped I’d join her, but I told her I couldn’t. I spent the rest of the day in bed reading a book. I dozed off a few times. That night I finally managed about seven hours of sleep.

Feeling partially restored, on Sunday I worked my ass off staining that deck. By the end of the day we had two coats on the railing and one on the deck surface. We also discovered that the structure under the steps up to the deck was rotting. Our son dismantled it and will rebuild it for us today. It’s nice to have someone with those skills in the family.

I thought a day of honest physical labor might do me some good and let me sleep deeply. Nope. Last night, once again, crap sleep.

I’m deeply tired, and I’m a little depressed. I think I’ll take tomorrow off, too, a day just for me. I need to press my inner reset button and this weekend really hasn’t done it for me yet. Everybody else will be back at work so I will be alone. I love being alone.

I forget that the pandemic itself is stressful. We’ve all had to adapt to a lot of change in a short time, and that’s never easy. The big work project was a great distraction. It started before the lockdown, so from the first day of working from home I could throw myself fully into it all day. Then all evening I could focus on my family. I seldom went out among people — Saturday morning to the grocery store, and usually once a week to pick up carryout, but that was it. I sometimes read the news so I’d have some idea about the pandemic’s progress. Otherwise, I could shut it out.

I also forgot that the pandemic is stressful for my entire family. Our children who no longer live with us have their own troubles but I’ll focus on the three that still live with us. All of them spent several weeks unemployed. I’ve said before that they were okay because we were able to provide them a roof and food. But they were also stuck here at home with no in-person contact with any of their friends. I’m good with being at home for long stretches. So is one of our sons. We’re both people with considerable inner worlds and we’re thrilled to live in them.

But our other son and our daughter are not built for this and it was very hard on them. That son, we learned, was sneaking out to spend time with his girlfriend, exposing us all to risk. I was furious at first. But after a long conversation with my wife I was able to see what isolation was doing to our son and daughter. I was no longer sure what was right. I’m still not.

Since Indiana started reopening, all three of these adult children spend some time with friends now. I’m a little frightened of it. Margaret and I are in the age group that has had the most cases of COVID-19 in Indiana. I do not want this disease. I also know that I fall on the very conservative side of reasonable responses to the virus. Other reasonable responses include some social contact.

I empathize with our children, who need that social contact. I’m conflicted about whether to draw a line, or allow this. I just don’t know what’s right. So I’m doing nothing, which tacitly allows this, and I just feel stuck.

I expect things to be more normal at work when I return. Stressful, tight-timeline projects like this one are not typical. We normally work in two-week chunks, or sprints, as we call them. Most software companies want some ability to predict when projects will finish. This system of sprints gives us good enough predictability with a lot less pressure. Engineers feel like they have the time to do good work. I like that.

It’s also a lot less stressful for me. In traditional project management, like I just finished doing, I’m sort of the captain of the ship directing everything that’s happening from my chair on the bridge. In our system of sprints, we set up two weeks of work and I then trust the teams to deliver it. They mostly do. I coach the engineers along the way and when they get stuck help them through it. It’s real work, but a lot less pressure.

That pressure was part of what allowed me to be distracted from everything else. I’m going to have to face it now. I don’t know what that means yet. I’m going to find out this week.

Other pandemic reports from Yuri Rasin, Owain Shaw, and brandib.


Confirmed: I’m staying the heck home

This graph bothers me.

It is the number of total reported cases of COVID-19 in Indiana since the beginning. That graph is not leveling out. It says that, on the whole, the virus is still spreading at a consistent rate.

If you’re curious, you can see this graph as part of a fascinating dashboard at the Indiana State Department of Health’s Web site here. It’s updated daily. This dashboard says that, by a hair, the most cases have been reported among people ages 50-59 – my age group. But more than half of the deaths are among people over 80.

I’ve said for a while now that I think Indiana is opening too soon. I recently read this article by a university immunologist. She restates in layman’s terms the studies and research done to date on the virus and its spread. The gist: your risk increases dramatically the longer you spend in a room where you are exposed to the virus. Meals in restaurants, church services, birthday parties — these are the places you’re most likely to get the virus. You tend to be in one room for these things and stay for a while. If you are near someone with the virus, you marinate in it. You are at comparatively low risk at the supermarket, believe it or not, because you keep moving. Your contact with any one infected person is short.

At my church, we’re considering reopening the first Sunday in June. That’s the first Sunday the county allows religious services to resume. As an elder, is my duty to tell the other elders that this is a terrible idea and we should wait. I hope they listen. If they don’t, they will open without me.

Other pandemic reports from sumacandmilkweed, fishfisharcade, Yuri Rasin, Gerald Greenwood, brandib.


My coronacut

My hair finally got so long that I couldn’t style it anymore. Here in Indiana I am able to make an appointment at a stylist, but I cut it myself anyway. I’m convinced we’re reopening too fast here. I have zero interest in human contact as close as the stylist’s chair requires.

I own a little Wahl Peanut clipper. The longest guard you can get for it is a #4, which is ½ inch. I wish I had a #8 1-inch guard, but I’d have to buy a bigger and better clipper for that. Clippers are out of stock everywhere (surprise!), so I went with the Peanut.

There’s nothing about this cut that’s stylish, but at least it will be easy care. When it grows to about an inch on top, I’ll clip the sides to ½ inch again and blend them with the top.

25th high-school reunion, 2010

This cut is emotionally painful because it reveals exactly how much hair I’ve lost on top of my head.

The last time I had hair this short was in about 1999. The hair was so dense, you couldn’t see my scalp. That’s not true anymore!

It’s thin enough on top that I wonder whether my scalp will burn when I next spend a lot of time in the sun.

I’m not bald — yet. Give my hair a couple months, and its length will cover my hair loss reasonably well.

At my 25th high-school reunion, I was named winner of the hair lottery. It was kind of surprising to see how many of my male classmates had lost their hair.

Looks like I am on track to join them at last. I had a great run, though.


I feared I wouldn’t adapt well to working from home

I touched on this in one of my earlier COVID-19 reports, but I’d like to expand on it today: I am surprised to find I don’t mind working from home long term.

I always feared I wouldn’t enjoy it. I like the human contact the office gives me. I worried it would be a lot harder for me to build the relationships I need to influence decisions. Also, I like having a place where work happens and a separate place where home happens. Finally, I have always been sure that if I worked from home, I wouldn’t be able to stay out of the refrigerator.

Where I work, we are in the final days of a large, complex, and critical project. I’m the lead project manager. I was handed this project in flight and asked to straighten it out. The kinds of things that go wrong at this point in a project like this are happening. I liken it to bombs dropping overhead while you stroll through a minefield.


About 25 people are working on this project, and four executives over my head anxiously await its completion. All of us are at home. Thanks to Slack, a text-based asynchronous communication tool, and to Zoom, a videoconferencing tool, communication is flowing well. Thanks to Jira and GitHub, a work-ticketing system and a code-management tool, I can watch the work flow. I know that the team is working hard, and I know when they’re blocked. I know when I need to act to unblock the team, and I can keep executives fully in the loop.

Productivity is comparable to nine weeks ago when we were all in the office. We’re not missing a beat in communication.

It works because we all work from home. We all have to use Slack and Zoom. There are no conference-room meetings or hallway conversations.

I find that when some people work remotely and everyone else is in the office, the remote workers have to work triply hard to stay in the loop and be heard. I know of a couple companies that make a hybrid remote/in-office culture work, but it takes a lot of intentional energy to keep it working. It’s easiest when everybody works remotely, or nobody does.

It helps a lot that my first nine months with this employer were in the office. I built relationships and influence the way I already know how: in person. I don’t know how I’d build it if I started with this company right now, while we’re all still at home.

I was right about one thing, though: I can’t stay out of the refrigerator.

Other pandemic reports from fishyfisharcade and Ted Smith.

COVID-19, Film Photography

An abandoned bridge and a forgotten cemetery

We were just two weeks into stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. I thought I was adapting okay, but as that second week drew to a close I felt myself going a little stir crazy. I felt a strong need to get away for a while. But where could I go?

My wife suggested I just take a long drive. “If you’re in your car, there’s nobody to infect you and you can’t infect anybody.” Brilliant. So that Saturday afternoon that’s just what I did.

I don’t like to drive aimlessly. I need to have a destination. So I chose one: the abandoned US 40 bridge west of Plainfield, Indiana, and the Civil War-era cemetery hidden near it. It’s about 40 minutes from home, giving me a good long drive there and back. I’ve never encountered another soul there anytime I’ve visited, so it would be a safe place to go. My Pentax ME Super was loaded with Kodak T-Max 400 at the time so I brought it along. The wonderful 50mm f/1.7 SMC Pentax-M lens was attached.

Abadoned US 40 bridge

The bare-tree months are my favorite time to visit this bridge because it’s so visible. In the middle of summer this is mighty overgrown. You can’t even see the bridge from modern US 40 then. But at this time of year it’s easy to see.

Abadoned US 40 bridge

This bridge was built in 1923. It doesn’t look too bad for having gotten zero maintenance since it was abandoned, which was sometime between 1939 and 1941.

Abadoned US 40 bridge

Iron’s Cemetery is just northeast of the bridge. Little spring flowers grew all along the path leading to it.

At Iron's Cemetery

Inside the cemetery, you can see the other side of the bridge. At least you can during the bare-tree months.

Abandoned US 40 bridge

Except for the sound of an occasional passing car, the only sound here is the wind. It was lovely to be out in the world in a peaceful place.

At Iron's Cemetery

There are always lots of interesting details to photograph in an old cemetery. Gravestone letterforms of the 1800s fascinate me. They have such style!

At Iron's Cemetery

Unfortunately, many of the markers here are in poor condition. Some of them are broken and lying on the ground.

At Iron's Cemetery

I hate to see any old cemetery in this condition. It’s funny — I won’t be buried in one when I’m gone, it seems like a waste of good ground. Cremate me and scatter my remains to the wind. But for those who did choose burial, good heavens, provide for the maintenance of those graves!

At Iron's Cemetery

But enough of that maudlin stuff. It helped me regain my internal footing to make this trip. I lingered here well past I stopped finding photographic inspiration, just to enjoy the quiet and the outdoors. Then I got into my car and drove back home.

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Better home life on lockdown

We ordered barbecue last night for the family, carryout. Margaret and I were both knackered after hard-charging days at work and we pressed the Easy button on dinner.

Before the pandemic Margaret and I used to have dinner out twice a week — sometimes three, once in a while four times. We didn’t really want it to be that way. But Margaret often worked late, and I had a 30-minute commute. We often came home too tired to face the kitchen.

We’ve welcomed making more dinners at home. Margaret, I, and our daughter all have dietary restrictions and cooking at home lets us confidently avoid the troublesome foods on all of our lists. We eat more healthfully — a greater variety of foods, more vegetables, fewer calories.

Because I’m working at home, I can sometimes even start dinner between meetings and have it ready when Margaret gets home. That plus losing my evening commute has made our evenings feel a lot longer — there’s more downtime in them.

Losing the morning commute has given me more time to write in the morning. (You might think I’d sleep later instead, and I did that for the first week or so. But I learned quickly that it’s best for me to keep as many of my old routines as possible. Back to my normal waking time I went.)

I also see a lot more of the three children who live with us. They’re all young adults figuring out how to step into independent lives. The pandemic paused their employment. One went back to work two weeks ago and one returns to work this weekend.

Flag over Chick-fil-A

The third, our daughter, hasn’t been called back yet and she’s still hanging out here most of the time. But her night-owl ways and my 8-to-5 work schedule meant that until the stay-at-home order we seldom saw each other. It’s been lovely to talk to her more. She usually comes downstairs about the time I’m breaking for lunch. Sometimes I run over to Chick-fil-A and get us both some nuggets and fries. It’s a nice moment of connection.

I’m also able to keep the house up better. I can give a toilet a quick swab or a countertop a quick wipe whenever I notice they need it. I’ve even run the vacuum a time or two between meetings, and have run a few loads of laundry. Despite these distractions I’m getting as much done as I ever did at work. In the office, I spent time chatting briefly with people I encountered in the hallway or at the coffee pot. That’s all gone while working from home.

Also gone are the morning coffees I used to have with past colleagues. I’ve met with a few of them over Zoom, which tides us over. I also miss the good energy of my workplace, the serendipitous conversations I had with VPs at the coffee pot, and going out for lunch with the engineers. I miss Downtown Indianapolis, where our offices are located. I miss singing in the car to my music on my commute — singing is cathartic for me. I miss occasionally meeting my brother for a whiskey after work.

Like you, I suffered some loss when the pandemic changed our lives. But when things start to edge back toward the post-pandemic normal and I’m working in the office again, I’ll suffer another loss. I will miss this better home life.