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.


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.


Coping with the stress

We all have to find ways to cope with the stress of our current situation. I’ve coped by leaning harder into film photography.

In the shadow of the fence
Pentax ME Super, 50mm f/1.7 SMC Pentax-M, Kodak T-Max 400, Rodinal 1+50, 2020

I take a lot of lunchtime walks to photograph things. Because I need to get back to work I can’t stray far from home. I’ve had to be creative in finding new ways to look at my suburban neighborhood. At first glance, there’s sameness everywhere. But there are still details to find and interesting light to experience.

I’ve also reached into my to-shoot queue of new-to-me old cameras. I don’t mind shooting the same old things as much when I’m learning the ways of an unfamiliar camera. It’s an advantage to shoot familiar scenes because I have a good idea of how other cameras and films have rendered it. I can compare the results as I evaluate the camera.

Lately I’ve shot my Polaroid SX-70 for the first time in years. I’ve also put film through a Pentax ME Super, a Kodak Retina Reflex III, and two Kodak No. 2 Hawk-Eye box cameras. I also have one more roll of film to try courtesy Analogue Wonderland, a roll of Adox HR-50 that I’ve put into my Olympus OM-1. If you follow me on Flickr you’ve already seen some of this work. Otherwise, hang tight, posts about it are coming.

Given these circumstances I’m very glad I can develop black-and-white film now. I didn’t foresee any of this coming when I learned that skill late last year. If I had to send all of this film out for processing it would be quite expensive. It would also be quite slow. The normal 1-2 week turnaround time at most labs has, by all accounts, become even longer because labs are limiting staff to maintain good social distancing.

I know I could just shoot digital during this time, but film is just more fun for me.

Photography is a great distraction from the world’s and my troubles. It’s also something I can control at a time when so much is beyond my control. Both of these things are good for my mental health during these difficult and worrisome times.

Other pandemic reports from Mark Evanier and fishyfisharcade.


Settling into a new normal

It surprises me, but I think we’re already adapting to our new normal here. We’re even enjoying some aspects of it.

It helps a lot that Margaret and I remain employed at our pre-pandemic rates of pay. Unlike many, we have no money concerns right now. I’ve thought Margaret’s company would furlough everyone, and indeed they’ve told many that they should stay home. But they’re still paying everyone, and they appear to want to do that for the duration if they can.

Welcome to Zionsville

I have always wondered whether I could tolerate working from home every day. Before this I did it at most a few times a month, when I needed quiet and privacy such as to write employee reviews, or when I had a plumber here to fix the sink. It was a nice break, but I was always ready to return to the office. I like being in the office.

A couple years ago while I was unemployed, one of the job opportunities I pursued was with for a Happiness Engineer (support) position. I love WordPress and I was excited to possibly join the team. But I wasn’t sure if I’d take well to working from home every day.

I had made it to the interview stage when I accepted an offer from a local software company to manage engineers. I think I would have loved the Happiness Engineer role, but it would have meant a healthy pay cut. Margaret was encouraging and enthusiastic, telling me we’d adjust our budget for a job that made me happy. But I just wasn’t sure I could handle working from home for the long haul. When the engineering manager offer meant a return to office life and keeping my former salary, the decision was easy.

But now I know I can do this, and I believe I can sustain it. It helps a lot that we’re all working from home. I’m not missing out on any hallway conversations, or struggling to hear or be heard on a meeting I’m taking online with a bunch of people in a conference room.

There is a downside. As a manager I’m used to having a lot of meetings every day. But now my calendar is packed — I go from one Zoom room to another all day. I think this compensates for the lack of organic conversations that happen naturally at the office. There has to be a better way, but we haven’t found it yet as an organization. By the time I shut off Zoom at day’s end, I’m drained.

To give myself a break, I’ve blocked my calendar 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon so I can catch up on messages and go to the bathroom. I tell my colleagues that if God Himself sends me a meeting request for those times, I’m declining it.

I’m also blocking 90 minutes at lunch. I eat something in the first 30 minutes while I again catch up on messages, but then I step away from the computer the rest of that time. If it’s not raining and my old hip injury isn’t bothering me, I take a walk around the neighborhood.

I bring a camera on those walks. I’m shooting more film now that I’m stuck at home. At first, it was a distraction that helped me cope with all the changes. Now I see it as an opportunity to finally burn through my queue of new-to-me old cameras, and shoot the last few of my collection in Operation Thin the Herd. Soon you’ll see the fruits of this labor here on the blog. It’ll be a nice break from the road-trip posts I’ve been bringing over from my old site.

At home, it’s been lovely to see and talk more with Margaret’s children, the three that live with us. They’re hardly children anymore at 19, 23, and 28. They were seldom home as they worked and spent time with friends and partners. I like them, and I think they like me, but we’ve not been close. It doesn’t help that the orderly way of life I’m used to doesn’t line up very well with the bohemian way of life they’re used to. Thia more carefree approach to living appealed to me when I met Margaret, and I’ve adapted to it some. But I still need order and routine. I’m sure Margaret’s kids see me as rigid, and even irritable when order breaks down too much.

They’re just as stuck at home as I am now, and that provides more chances to interact. Where we used to eat dinner together maybe once a week, it’s now five or more times a week. Now that I have blocked downtime on my work calendar we even have random chats about everyday life as they pass through the kitchen, ten feet from my desk and the hub of our home. It lets us all see different sides of each other, and I hope will let us all feel closer and more connected.

One of the best times we’ve ever had as a family was a couple Saturdays ago when neither Margaret nor I could face making one more big dinner. I called the Mexican place around the corner and brought in a feast. We all sat around the table and bantered and laughed. Laughter is such the thread that stitches families together.

Other isolation reports from Christopher May, brandib, Simon, and Dan James.