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.


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.


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.


I drink coffee so you like me better, and whiskey so I like you better

At the company that fired me last year I picked up the reputation of a serious coffee drinker — enough that at the holiday party, when they handed out silly awards I won Most Caffeinated. That really tickled me.

Currently caffeinating

At that point I was drinking about a pot of coffee a day — half of that before I drove to the office.

I was also known as a whiskey drinker. That company had occasional happy hours where they provided wine and beer. I’d mingle, but seldom drink, until someone asked me why. When I told them I was more a whiskey man, a bottle of brown spirits appeared at future events.

I used to tell them, jokingly, that I drank coffee so they’d like me better, and whiskey so I’d like them better.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that through the unbelievable series of unwelcome and unwanted life events my family has lived through the last three years, I was drinking shots of whiskey every night to come down off the day so I could sleep.

A few months ago I realized I was falling into a deep hole so I cut out alcohol entirely. Immediately, sleep came with difficulty and sometimes not at all. I had just started to find regular sleep again when I took my new job. It triggered three solid weeks of insomnia.

So I went to the doctor, who prescribed something short-term to take the edge off. It works great. I’ve also started seeing a therapist for support.

The doctor arched her eyebrow at how much coffee I drink, so I’m trying cutting way back on that, too. Instead of half a pot of coffee in the morning I now drink three cups of black tea. I like the experience of sipping a warm liquid as part of my morning ritual of breakfast and blogging, and I worried that if I went all the way to decaffeinated coffee the headaches would be debilitating.

At work I allow myself one cup of coffee. In the afternoon I try to cut out caffeine entirely, but if the craving is solid I’ll allow myself one more cup of tea.

That cuts my caffeine intake in half — and glory be, my body is less often edgy-anxious at bedtime. I need to pop the prescribed bedtime pill far less often now.

I have tentatively tried a little alcohol again over the last few weeks. Margaret and I drank a couple bottles of wine while we were in New Harmony and on our wedding anniversary here at home, and I’ve had a few cocktails while out with friends. What I’m not doing anymore is pouring a tall bourbon or scotch and sipping it in bed, and another and another or however many it took to put me to sleep. This is an experiment and we will see how it goes. As I said before, if booze won’t stay in the box I put it in, I’ll teetotal forever.

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In early 2012 the company I worked for was sold. I’d been very happy there but the new owner destroyed the place and the stress was intense. Most nights I lay awake half the night.

I’d tried Ambien for sleep when I went through my divorce. That stuff was scary. 30 minutes after I took it I’d pass out, and eight hours later I’d suddenly come to — but I felt more tired than before. I’m pretty sure I was lying awake all night in an unaware state until the Ambien wore off.

This time the doctor tried a couple other common sleep medications that didn’t work. Finally he prescribed Trazodone, a drug originally used to treat depression but which is so sedating that today it is most often prescribed for sleep. It worked great, except that if I took it more than two nights in a row it slowed my digestion to a stop. A man’s gotta poo, so I stopped using it.

My favorite sippin' glass

I forget who mentioned that a healthy shot of whiskey at bedtime did the trick when they had insomnia. I like whiskey, so I gave it a try. I’d stretch out on the couch with my glass and sip it slowly while I watched something inane on TV, and most nights I’d be asleep within an hour.

At first I used whiskey only when I couldn’t sleep naturally. But within a couple years this ritual became a nightly, guilty pleasure, even when I was going to have no trouble sleeping. It was quiet, contemplative personal time.

With the difficulties my family has lived through these last few years, however, I couldn’t sleep at all without a pour, or sometimes two. Then last year after I lost my job, two pours became three, or even four — whatever it took to knock me out. The more I drank, the less restfully I slept. Sometimes I woke up with a start in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall asleep again.

By the first of this year I knew that alcohol had become a harm rather than a help. I mentioned it in my annual New Year’s post that I planned to quit using whiskey as a sleep aid.

I had cut back to a couple drinks a week until we discovered the foundation issues at our rental house. If that were the only thing that had gone seriously wrong for us over the last few years it would have been challenging enough. But given everything else, I felt like I was drowning. My anxiety went through the roof, I was unable to sleep, and in desperation I went right back to several drinks a night.

I kept this up until Easter weekend when I realized I felt terrible and it was directly caused by the alcohol. So I quit cold turkey.

It’s interesting to notice how my mind and my body are responding differently to not drinking. My mind doesn’t mind at all! When I made the logical connection between alcohol and how bad I was feeling physically, my mind changed instantly.

My body, however, has become habituated to its nightly pours. At first, it asked plaintively every night if I’d satisfy its desire. It’s not every night anymore, but it’s any night I have any anxiety at bedtime.

Thanks to having practiced meditation off and on since I was in my 20s, I have decent skills at noticing a feeling, sitting with it, and not acting. I wish I could meditate the anxiety away, though. I’ve never figured that one out.

Without alcohol to obliterate the anxiety, I hardly slept that first week. I was a zombie at work! But my baseline anxiety has lessened, and I sleep through the night most nights now. I wake tired, but I think it’s because I’m still exhausted from having run this marathon of the last few years at a 5K pace.

Booze free, I’m fascinated by how clearly I think and how emotionally resilient I am. The alcohol was stunting both mind and emotions. I still have a long road ahead regaining my rest and strength after the last few years of difficulty, but cutting out alcohol has let me jump way ahead in that recovery.

I expect that at some point I’ll realize my body hasn’t craved liquor for some time. When that happens I’ll take my wife out for a drink and see how it goes. I like whiskey a lot and I hope to find an appropriate and pleasurable place for it in my life. But I’ll not let it control me again. If it won’t stay in the box I make for it, I’ll teetotal forever.


I can’t go into it all, everything my family has been through in the last year. If you visit here regularly, you know about my wife’s serious back injury and her recovery from it, new jobs for both my wife and for me, selling my old home and finally moving in with my wife, my father’s final illness and death, care of my wife’s elderly parents, and the shocking and unexpected death of our daughter-in-law.

That’s just some of it. There’s more, much more, stories that aren’t mine to tell and so need to remain private. All of it has been a terrible strain on us not just individually, but also on our young marriage.

We’ll be okay. We’ve both known hard times earlier in our lives and have learned how to handle them. We know grace, how to give it and receive it.

We think that the worst of it is over. We think we can now focus fully on us.

It’s a relief. We are happy to be on our path forward.


The path forward

Reflections on the path forward after a difficult time in our lives.