Personal

Looking for moments of normal

When you live through difficult times, some days are easier than others. I’m trying to not think much of things I can’t predict or control, but the thoughts do creep in.

It hit me last night that I’ve been looking forward to things getting back to normal. But when the virus threat has died down enough and we are all allowed to go out again, we might find a lot of businesses didn’t survive. We might even find ourselves in a deep recession, even a depression.

I can’t trade in mights right now, I have to trade in knowns. What I know is that we still have all of our income, that except for a few lingering needed repairs our home is sound, we have plenty of food, and we have each others’ company so we aren’t lonely.

Yesterday late morning our daughter came downstairs not feeling well. My wife was deep into work at her desk upstairs. I have been on Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting at work, back to back to back — but I’ve started blocking 11:30-1 on my calendar so I am sure to get a break. So I drove over to Chick-Fil-A and brought home lunch for everyone. Chicken nuggets, waffle fries, and lemonade. They were a balm for all of us.

Other recent isolation reports from Khürt Williams, fishyfisharcade (two, actually), dionyb, and Steve Mitchell.

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Personal

Report from the pandemic

I’m going to blog from time to time about my family’s experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d love to hear about your experiences, too. Blogging gives us all an opportunity to share this experience of isolation, so we can feel less isolated. If you have a blog, please consider doing this too. Or start a blog for it. If you do this, let me know and I’ll link to you in my future pandemic reports.

I’m in my second week of working from home now. It’s not too bad, I think because my wife, Margaret, and three of our (adult) kids are here and so it doesn’t get lonely. I remember about six years ago I was a snowstorm stranded me at home for a week, all alone, and I was stir crazy by the end of it. I’m mighty introverted and adore being alone, but I do need some human interaction. That week didn’t meet my minimum requirements.

Our kids all had lives that saw them seldom home. They’re all home a lot now, except for the oldest who’s an apprentice plumber and is still working during the day. The younger two worked in restaurants and are now unemployed. They’re fortunate as their lack of income isn’t a crisis for them thanks to our roof and our food. We have shared more family meals, and more time just hanging out together, and it’s been lovely.

Indiana issued a stay-at-home order this week, to run through at least April 6. Since Margaret’s workplace was considered nonessential, it closed. Generously, they’re paying her until that date, but there are no guarantees beyond that. She can do some of her job from here and will as needed, but mostly she’s going to work on personal projects. Good for her; she’s not had much time for them in many years.

Margaret and I reflected the other day on how privileged we are right now. Our lives are different but not actually worse. We both know people who are now out of work and are scrambling to pay the rent and feed their families.

Our situation will change if this time of isolation lasts more than a couple weeks. Because of the nature of what Margaret’s employer does, I feel sure they will have to start laying off or furloughing staff if the stay at home order continues. Like I said last week, we’ll tighten our belts and be okay.

Leadership at my company is thankfully being mostly transparent about our financial situation. We’re okay now and will be for “some time.” But we’re eliminating nonessential spending and cutting some budgets to give us a longer cash runway. It’s prudent, and I’m glad. We are also exploring what we can change about our service offering, and what we can build into our product, to meet changing demand and find opportunity in this adversity.

Tension is high at work. We all feel some level of worry and we all feel real urgency to deliver fast on our initiatives.

Even though they haven’t said it plainly, it’s clear from context that after some while of revenue not meeting projections, hard choices will have to be made.

It’s always there, in the back of my head: the worry about being unemployed for the third time in five years. I worry that if it happens, economic conditions will make it incredibly difficult to find another job at all, let alone near my current salary or in my field.

I try to deflect that worry, or if I can’t, leave it on low simmer on the very back burner. I can’t control whether it happens. The best I can do is focus on my work, which is aimed at bringing in additional and new revenue in these changed times, and deliver it as well and as fast as I can.

I do most of the family shopping. I’m a meal planner, and go to the store with a solid list, and make each day the dinner I planned for that day. That’s all changed: we go to the store and buy what is available and figure out what meals we will make out of it. For example, I’ve never prepared pork ribs in my life, but they were one of the few available meats when I last shopped and so I brought some home. I’m going to make them today. Thank heavens for the Internet, which has instructions for everything.

There may be a blessing hidden in this: that I might become more flexible and fluid. That’d be nice.

I’m trying to get out for a walk every day. I don’t always succeed — work has been unusually demanding and time consuming. But I try very hard to do it. I usually take a camera along. I’m also shooting stuff around the house more. It really does take the edge off my stress to fire a few frames. I’m still shooting film and I’m focusing on black-and-white so I can develop it myself and save a lot over sending it to a lab. Here’s a photo I made at home just the other day. Just my car in the driveway, but I like how the plane of my car intersects with the plane of the houses across the street.

My vee dub

Sort of speaking of which, for my fellow photographers, a fellow in the UK named Andrew Sanderson has started a blog called Stuck At Home Photography which you can see here. He wrote a lovely book many years ago called Home Photography that extolled the virtues of, and gave many practical tips for, finding great photo subjects all over your home and property.

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Fasting from caffeine

Coffee out
Pentax ME, 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M, Agfa APX 100 (expired 7/98)

I stopped drinking anything with caffeine in it on Saturday, February 22.

I have been a coffee drinker my entire adult life. I started in college, where instant Taster’s Choice fueled many a late-night homework session. When I entered the work world I took a cup in the office every morning. Later I added a couple of cups at home with breakfast. When I started having insomnia during my divorce I drank more coffee to push through sleep-deprived days. By about 10 years ago I was drinking a pot a day.

Last year my doctor suggested that all that caffeine was probably making it harder to nod off at night, so I started drinking half-caff in the morning at home. Later I cut out my after-lunch cup. I had a little less trouble falling asleep.

Early in February I read this article in which food writer Michael Pollan described a three-month caffeine fast he took. He said that after he went through very real withdrawals, his sleep started to improve. When I read that soon he was “sleeping like a teenager” I knew I wanted to try a caffeine fast, too.

My sleep has been so-so for several years. The stress of the last few years has added frequent insomnia to the mix. I’m tired most of the time. I’d very much like to sleep better.

I tried to wean myself off caffeine a little more over the next couple weeks by drinking quarter-caff in the morning and cutting out coffee in the office altogether. Then on that February Saturday, I quit entirely. I drink herbal tea now. Bigelow’s orange-spice tea satisfies me best.

This fast also means no Diet Coke or iced tea. Drinking water at a restaurant saves me a couple bucks on lunch, which was nice until the coronavirus ended restaurant lunches.

The Saturday I quit, I fell into in such a low mood that I lay around in bed half the day watching dumb TV. It didn’t help that I’d experienced a heavy disappointment that morning. I hadn’t had such a low day in years and years.

Sunday the headache came. It lasted three days, pulsing right at the base of my skull. Aspirin and ibuprofen dulled it but did not quell it.

For about a week I kept wanting …something. I couldn’t figure out what. I tried chocolate, I tried salty snacks, I drank extra herbal tea. Of course, my body was asking for caffeine. These heavy cravings subsided by the end of the first week. I guess that was the end of withdrawal.

Then I noticed a general lack of tension in my body. If you’ve been reading here for a while, you know I’m a generally anxious man. My mind still worries about stuff, but my body doesn’t carry it very much anymore. The feeling of physical calm feels both odd and wonderful.

I feel tired more easily and more often. Even the way tired feels has changed. I used to go, go, go, and then suddenly crash, feeling hollowed out. Now my body runs down more slowly and I am more aware of when it’s time to start wrapping up and getting ready for bed.

My sleep has not improved so far. I still have trouble nodding off, and I still frequently wake in the middle of the night for an hour or two. I hope better sleep comes.

I also notice I don’t feel as sharp. There’s just an edge that’s gone. I can’t decide whether I miss it or not.

Even without that edge, I function fine without caffeine. I’m as productive as I ever was. It turns out caffeine wasn’t helping me very much, even after a night of bad sleep.

I miss coffee, though. I like how it tastes.

I plan to fast entirely from caffeine until June 1. Then I’ll have a single cup of coffee and see what it feels like. If my sleep doesn’t improve, I’ll return to drinking coffee — just far less of it, one or two cups a day. Either way, I believe I’ll drink Diet Coke and iced tea again at restaurants.

So far, life is fine without caffeine.

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Don’t let appearances deceive

My family is doing its part during this coronavirus pandemic — we have eliminated all but essential excursions to places where people might be.

Over the next few weeks this blog will feature posts where it might look like I’m still out and about. But I write most posts well in advance. I have at least a month’s worth of posts either already written and scheduled, or being drafted. You’ll be seeing stuff I’ve been doing for weeks and weeks leading up to our shared isolation.

A couple more posts are in the queue from our January trip to Chicago. I’m currently writing a few posts related to a Michigan Road project my wife is undertaking. That project took us to Shelbyville, a city southeast of Indianapolis, a few weeks ago.

Sanders
Sanders Jewelry, on the Michigan Road in Shelbyville, Indiana

I’ve also taken several photo walks around Downtown Indianapolis, Carmel, and Zionsville. I’ve yet to share photos from most of those walks.

When I run out of that material, I’ll shift to bringing more of my long-ago road trips here from my old HTML site. I will probably also start making photographs around the house and as I take walks around the neighborhood. Hopefully that will give me more to share as well.

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Tolerating uncertainty

I’ve been working from home since Monday, thanks to the coronavirus. Like many workplaces, we switched to remote working to be on the safe side.

I’m fortunate to work in the software industry — it is still functioning, and thanks to my home Internet connection I can do every aspect of my job from home. I don’t enjoy working from home, but it keeps the paychecks rolling in. Not everyone is so fortunate. I spoke with my boss this morning. He has a close relative who works as a server in a restaurant. So does her boyfriend. Neither of them is working now and the rent will soon come due.

That’s not to say my job is protected against what may come. The product we make is a Web site and mobile app that everyday people use. Their daily consumption of our product directly drives our revenue. It remains to be seen whether the current world conditions change our users’ behavior and have a negative effect on our bottom line. I’m sure we can tolerate some loss for some while, but at some point declining revenue would affect the company’s ability to employ everyone.

My wife works in retail and it is a matter of days, we’re sure, before her store closes. If we tighten our belts we will be okay.

In this crazy era where it’s hard to know which news sources to trust, I hear widely differing projections on how long this will last. I’m choosing not to believe any of them. I’ll just take this day to day. Yet I’m mindful that this could go on for a long while and, if it does, it will have deep and far-reaching impacts.

I’m focusing on two things: first, living as normal of a life as possible; and second, maintaining my composure.

There’s stress in working from home, in finding the grocery store perpetually out of ground beef and toilet paper, in not being able to go out on a date with my wife. (We had theater tickets for Saturday; the production closed thanks to the virus.) These are all little stresses, but they do add up. Fortunately, so far these little stresses have come with little benefits. We’re having more dinners together as a family, we’re spending less on food because we’re not eating out, and I’ve got an hour back in each weekday because I’m not commuting. So I’m just trying to remain open to what each day brings and enjoy what I can in it.

There’s also stress in worrying about the future. I’m attached to a vision of my family’s future that, if the worst projections come true, will change unpredictably. I’m trying to suspend that attachment and be open to new and unexpected outcomes. Hopefully that’ll let me sleep at night.

Rays
Sunnier days are surely ahead
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Redeeming the sins of my father

My father taught me that men work. It was a regular theme of his parenting. He demonstrated it every day: in bed at 10, up at 5, off to the plant by 7, home at 4, rest with the family all evening. He did this week in and week out all through my childhood.

As my brother and I entered our teenage years he all but ordered us to find work in the neighborhood. We shoveled driveways in the winter and mowed lawns in the summer. We delivered newspapers in all weather, including one Christmas morning when the snow was up to our waists. Once we painted a neighbor’s privacy fence. A couple times I minded a vacationing neighbor’s house and took care of their dog.

The four of us with Dad’s Aunt Betty in about 1980

During our college years Dad insisted we work to help pay our way. I was counterman at a Dairy Queen, a courier, a programmer, a gift-shop manager, a switchboard operator, and an administrative assistant.

While my brother and I were in college, the plant where Dad had worked all our lives closed. Manufacturing was in steep decline and jobs were scarce. Dad’s best friend ran the art museum at Notre Dame and had him make pedestals for sculpture and benches for people to sit on. Dad found he had a real talent for cabinetmaking. Well-heeled museum patrons began to ask Dad to make custom wood furniture for their homes. This kept the family going until Dad found another manufacturing job. He rose rapidly; by the time my brother and I graduated, he was plant manager. He worked hard all week at the plant and all weekend making furniture.

After my brother and I had both flown the nest, Dad quit the plant to make furniture full time. He designed and built beautiful original furniture for a wealthy clientele all across northern Indiana.

Dad hoped that word of mouth would build his business. I think he wanted to be sought out and chosen, and so he resisted making sales calls. He was advised to move downmarket, to hire a crew to make similar but simpler furniture in assembly-line fashion at lower cost, and to open a store. He resisted that, too.

The business never took off. After several extremely lean years, he found a job with a startup manufacturing company as plant manager. He found a building for the company to operate from, bought the equipment, hired a crew, and got the plant operating. But he had some difficulty navigating the politics with the company founders and was fired.

These two failures were a one-two punch to Dad’s gut. He gave up. Except when cabinetmaking work happened to find him, he never worked again.

I forget how old Dad was when all this happened. 55 maybe? 60? I was well into my adult life by then, was probably married with kids, and have lost track of the timing.

But I remember being deeply disappointed in my dad as he threw up every excuse for not finding a job, and instead donated his time to various social causes in my hometown. When Mom was forced to go back to work to put food on the table and provide health insurance, I became full-on angry.

I’m not sure that anger ever left. I just had to live with it. I broached this subject gently a few times but Dad wouldn’t let me go there.

I think for all these years I’ve lived with ambivalence toward my father. I loved him, but I lost respect for him and harbored, maybe even nurtured, a disgust for what he’d done. I yearned to be close to him, but I was repelled by how he let my mom down and by how he didn’t live up to the ideals he taught his sons.

My dad at Christmas just before he died, with my older son

Over the last couple years I’ve had challenges in my own career. Just as my sons were entering college a few years ago, I was laid off. Then last year I was fired from another job.

Meanwhile, it turns out I have a knack for writing and photography and I’ve built this reasonably popular blog around my work. I deeply enjoy how people have found and follow my work here.

I am very aware of some feelings and desires within me. I imagine that my dad must have had much the same ones. He and I are more alike than I care to admit.

I believe Dad wanted to be well known and loved for his furniture more than he wanted to have a profitable business. I believe he hoped he would become the wood-furniture darling of the wealthy and well-known. I believe this because I want to be well known and loved for my photography and writing. I’ve gotten a taste of that through this blog and have considered, even dipped my toe in the water of, turning it into a living and leaving my career behind.

And I believe that when Dad’s business failed and he was fired from his last job, a voice in his head screamed at him that he was always a failure and a fraud. I believe that voice told him that his age was a disadvantage, that he couldn’t keep up with the younger crowd, that he was being pushed out. I believe his urge was incredibly strong to let his career go. I believe this because when I lost my job last year, these are the things the voice in my head was yelling at me.

I wish I could say that I thought about what my dad would have done, as a way of seeking guidance. But I can’t. Instead, I’ve doggedly, determinedly done the exact opposite of what he did.

I resisted the urge to double down on photography and writing, and have kept them as hobbies while I kept pursuing my career. At the same time, I’ve worked to promote my blog to put it in front of more eyes, rather than just lay back and hope people will find me.

Both times I’ve lost a job in the last few years, when the voice in my head yelled at me to give up I told it to leave me alone, to get bent, to fuck off. I’ve worked hard to stay employed in my field. I refuse to let my family down.

It’s given me some compassion for my father. However, that compassion has yet to overtake my anger and disappointment. I hope it does, in time. Perhaps that will finally unlock my grief. Dad’s been gone for two years today.

Read Dad’s life story here.

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