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.


The power of saying no to yourself

“You’re just going to have to say no more often.”

I was having lunch with a friend, who also happens to be the pastor at my church. We get together most Fridays to talk church business and to catch up on each others’ lives.

I told him that I feel relaxed. As relaxed as I get, anyway; I’m pretty high strung. But more relaxed than at any time I can remember in my adult life. The last time I remember being this relaxed was more than a quarter century ago, when I’d take a summer job after coming home from the stress and pressure of engineering school. Every summer’s job was different and interesting, but seldom difficult. I loved the change of pace, the experience of something new. I always went back to school refreshed and ready for another hard year.

This summer has felt much like that. After I lost a high-stress job on the first of June, I quickly landed a part-time consulting job advising a startup software company. I asked a lot of questions, soaked in their culture and methodology, worked alongside their programmers a little, and gave them a ton of advice from my experience about how to deliver quality software. It was fun!

Working part-time this summer let my life slow down, too, but I was surprised by how full it remained. I was just running at a peaceful pace, rather than full tilt. It has been wonderful!

Eight weeks have gone by, and now I’m refreshed and ready to return to full-time work. Fortunately, two good job offers landed this week, and I accepted one of them. I’ll be back to work the first week of August.

No Dumping

But I’m not ready to return to high stress. That’s why my friend advised me to say no: that little word really is the key to a satisfying and sane life.

But everything I’m involved in — work, family, church, the Historic Michigan Road Association, photography, this blog — are important to me. And while they make for a busy life, they also make for an interesting life. I’m not willing to let anything go.

So how do I say no without actually saying no? And then it hit me: how much of my former ridiculous pace was self-inflicted? What attitudes or tendencies do I have that lead me to push myself so hard?

Hint: I’m a classic overachiever. That’s what I can let go, or at least work at letting go. Here are some things I’m saying no to, effective immediately.

Say no to a tyrannical personal schedule. I felt like I had to keep perfectly on top of it all. I lived in fear of anything in my work and personal life going off the rails.

During and shortly after my crushingly stressful divorce, I lived in a constant crisis mode where even a small thing going wrong, like running out of milk or clean underwear, or not keeping up with cutting the grass, could snowball on me fast and mercilessly. It led me to keep an intricate and demanding personal schedule so everything is always handled.

It was tyranny. And this summer taught me that I’ve kept it up far beyond its usefulness. In the extra time I’ve had this summer, it’s been easy to adapt and respond to whatever has come. What peace it has brought! I want to hold onto that peace as much as I can.

I won’t return to such a tight schedule. It means things might go wrong sometimes, and I will have to adapt and respond to it. I might have to run to Walmart at 6:30 in the morning for milk for my son’s breakfast. I might have to pay someone to cut the grass, or take an afternoon off to cut it, or just let it grow long for a while. And I will just buy a lot of extra underwear.

No Smoking

Say no to my desire to knock every ball out of the park. At work, I always want to absolutely crush it. I find deep satisfaction in a job extremely well done. But it takes a lot of time, which leads to me packing too much into my days, which leads to a tyrannical schedule at work. No more. The added stress and reduced peace are not worth it. I’m going to figure out how good each task needs to be to meet its need, and stop there, even if it drives me a little crazy at first. I’ve said for years that I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ll put that to the test when I go back to work.

Say no to situations and environments that aren’t a fit. The last year or so at my last company, I felt like I was constantly walking into strong headwinds. I saw future problems we were creating for ourselves, but was unable to get anyone to see them and therefore to buy into any ideas I had to prevent them. I even clashed a little with a few of my peers over it. I was never a great cultural fit there anyway, as it was a strong alpha-male culture and I’m generally more of a quiet collaborator.

But I kept leaning into the headwind, trying to adapt myself to the culture, trying to find new ways to advance my ideas. I might as well have pissed into that wind for all the good it did me. I was on a fast train to burnout.

I’ve had temporary rough patches in many workplaces. I can push through those. But if I feel like I never stop rolling the stone uphill, it is time to move on to a situation where I can have some success.


Eventually you realize you’re the common denominator in your problems

When something you don’t like happens to you over and over again, at some point you have to look hard at the part you play in it.

At the beginning of this year a larger company bought the company for which I work. Most acquisitions seem to be about neutralizing a competitor or reducing overall costs through layoffs, but this one was different. The company that bought us wanted our products and our people and treated the acquisition almost like a merger of equals. At about the same time I got a new boss, which would have happened merger or not. So on top of merger activities – new processes and systems, getting new computers, a switchover to the acquiring company’s computer networks and IT policies – we also embarked on a very aggressive project, and I had to figure out how to work for my new boss.

My office
The scene of my stress

The stress was intense. By the time the project ended in early August, I was teetering on the edge of burnout. My boss comped me an entire week off to recover, but it wasn’t enough. I’m still feeling aftereffects of the exhaustion, and am trying hard to get my head back into the game.

The thing is, I’ve been here over and over again. I took an inventory of just the last ten years and counted six times I’ve been exhausted like this, and some of those times have been for long periods. This has unintentionally become a theme on this blog; check out the stories here and here and here and here and here. I tended to finger external causes – it was the divorce, or a lousy project at work, or too many commitments. While external forces certainly played in these stressful times, I was overlooking the common denominator: me. As I took stock, here’s what I learned about myself.

  • I love to start new things. I am excited by a new venture’s potential and tend to say yes even when I’m already plenty busy. This is how I came to manage three separate departments and own a few side initiatives – the opportunities sounded exciting, so I said yes. I juggled these responsibilities well enough until the merger, when expectations and workloads spiked, and then I couldn’t handle it all.
  • I want to look like I can handle whatever is thrown at me. While all this was going on, my new boss wanted me to start several other side projects. I wanted her to see that I was in her corner so I took them on, but I was already behind the eight ball and this only made it worse. I ran frantically from meeting to meeting and watched my e-mail inbox fill faster than I could respond. People who worked for me could never get five minutes of my time.
  • I think that unless I’m killing myself, I’m not working hard enough. This has to come from my parents, because they both will work ridiculous overtime and go in even when they’re so sick they can hardly stand, as if their health and sanity is less important than their work. I’ve never been one to work overtime unless someone holds a gun to my head, but I multitask like a madman even though all the research says multitasking doesn’t work.
  • I am a perfectionist. Actually, I’m a recovering perfectionist. I know that what I consider to be my best work is often far more than what the situation calls for. But it still bothers me when I have to deliver less than my best. I had to do a lot of that just to survive this year, and it added to my stress.

I’ve finally had enough of this repeated exhaustion. In April, I asked my boss to narrow my responsibilities. She’s worked steadily on it and now I have a workload doable by a mortal man. Here are some things I’m working on so that I don’t wind up back in this mess again.

  • It’s time to learn to say no. My new mantra is, “I’d love to take that on, but something else has to come off my plate first.”
  • I have a new daily goal of not coming home from work feeling fried. This means I will pace myself every day, and this actually scares me. I’m afraid that if I don’t work ridiculously hard (or at least look like I’m working ridiculously hard) I’ll get bad reviews or end up fired. I’m going to face this fear head on. Logically I know that if I slow down it won’t result in unemployment, but I don’t feel it. But I’m already thinking about the extra energy I’ll have for my sons when I come home.
  • I will relax in the evenings. I feel like I need to work when I get home, too – cleaning, writing, cutting the grass, paying bills, or any number of other things. From now on, every evening will contain at least some time to read or watch TV or sit on the deck and watch the lousy golfers on the course behind my house hook balls into my back yard.
  • I’ve taken up meditation and yoga. The meditation helps me relax; continuing to practice it will help me cultivate staying present even when stress naturally occurs. The yoga is helping me accept my limitations – I’m unathletic and have terrible balance, and so many of the poses don’t come easily. But however well I can do the pose is inherently okay. And I find that without striving, over time the pose comes a little easier. Maybe life’s the same – stretch gently, listen to yourself for signs it’s time to stop, and try again next time to find you can stretch just a little bit farther than before.