I started this year dealing with the loss of my grandmother after a wonderful week-long speed-running convention, thinking about how my year was going to shape up. Seven months later and every convention has been canceled, my cousin‘s sudden passing was nothing more than a family text, and I don’t really even remember what it’s like to have office space.
The transition was so sudden. Both my and my partner’s workplaces shut down overnight, and it doesn’t look like there’s any chance we’ll be back at the office in 2020. Our living situation was intended to be temporary, and as such we don’t have one dedicated space for working, much less two. It’s been a challenge transitioning from being very mobile individuals that fed off of the opportunity that mobility provided to being stuck in a small two-story rental with no natural division between work and home.
Emotionally, the pandemic has dialed up the amplitude on an already-jagged rollercoaster of a year: higher peaks, lower lows, and an even larger gulf between how grateful I should be vs. the emotional state I find myself in.
Despite the fear and anxiety of death and sickness, this crisis lit in me a fire of opportunity and possibility. I didn’t expect the situation to last long, so I figured I’d better make the most of it. That fire is now a pile of embers—still hot, but without much fuel, and limited by a difficult struggle with disgust, restlessness, frustration and helplessness. It has been a strange period of golden opportunity and crushing loneliness. Let’s talk about it.
In the last few months I’ve been lucky enough to:
- Start a podcast and publish a 10-episode season
- Apply for, study for, and obtain the Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) certification
- Create my own custom Mario Maker 2 “super” world alongside the roomies to enable a celebration of sharing and playing them over a few nights in early July
- Produce an Animal Crossing / Shooting Stars meme
- Sink 150+ hours into Phantasy Star Online for the GameCube and share its sublime simplicity with my roommates
- Catch up on plenty of shows, including Nichijou, Made in Abyss, My Hero Academia, Parks and Recreation and Star Trek: Deep Space 9
- Invest in video games I’d usually skip, like my first Animal Crossing, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Far Cry 4, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Fall Guys, The Touryst, and Doom Eternal
- Read through and donate a backlog of Sonic the Hedgehog comics, Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, and lots of other fun material I’d put off for years
Trying to hold onto some of my yearly goals, I’ve also put a really strong emphasis on shedding as much of my baggage as I could, including:
- Surveying each room in the house (twice) and donating loads of clothes, books, comics, video games, toys, furniture, and anything else I could find (it’s really hard to oversell how much we’ve let go)
- Archiving and deleting my LiveJournal and slimming my Twitter account down to <100 tweets
- Auditing and trashing tons of technical debt, old project files, backup DVDs and USB drives
Above all, I’m thankful for the quality time I’ve been able to spend with my partner at home, sharing meals and moments that we almost never get to share otherwise. I wish it was under better circumstances (there is such a thing as spending too much time together), but I’ll take what I can get.
Life at the “temporary” house been an exercise in adaptation. Over lockdown we’ve installed shelves, cleaned out the garage, and nearly completely redone the backyard landscaping. For some sanity and stability we created a schedule of weekly dinner responsibilities. To combat my aimlessness and difficulty transitioning from “work” to “home” mode, I even hung little whiteboards in a few places to let me leave little mental bookmarks of what matters to me in each mode.
Despite the good fortune of productivity and employment, it hasn’t all been rosy. Since the first week of this mess in March, I’ve struggled with:
- Maintaining any kind of comparable physical activity to before the pandemic with the loss of purposeful destinations for walks and general opportunity for travel
- Getting to bed on time, waking up more than a few minutes before my first meeting of the day, or sleeping well when I do stick to a schedule—anyone else had dreams about people not wearing masks?
- Jealousy at how people’s social groups have helped them through this trying time and how I haven’t cultivated (or learned how to cultivate) something like that—Zoom calls with friends are only things I’ve heard about
- Disgust at how blatantly some of my coworkers have taken advantage of the situation to discover new lows in how little they can pay attention or contribute
- Confusion and resentment for not understanding how most of the world can just go on with life as if nothing was happening, how I could feel so differently from what I saw going on, and just how lonely that makes me feel
- Ashamed at how poorly I seem to be handling all this, especially with the privileged positions I’m in
Work has been a special kind of struggle. I moved back into the Product Owner role last October and it did wonders for my engagement (and happiness), but at the start of 2020 we entered a phase of uncertainty; the business was moving under our feet and the team was losing what little interest it had. Now with everyone working from home, the cracks are showing even more. Strategy is on pause—the business is focused on the pandemic and my team is not well-situated to assist—and our normal work has just evaporated. If we weren’t a government institution, I don’t think I’d be employed right now, and I don’t understand how we’ve avoided cuts or furloughs.
I’ve done my best to adapt, and I’ve been grateful to get one big project green-lit to give us something to do, but it’s left me in some pretty dark places from time to time. Everyone’s in a different boat, but it’s never been more obvious that my coworkers do not understand what kind of value work brings to people like me. Meetings often start late, enthusiasm and attention spans are waning, and what we’re working on is marginally-valuable at best—it’s tough to take it seriously most days. Despite this, the department as a whole has never been busier, giving the whole experience a gas-light-y sort of feel. Watching chats and emails fly around, seeing how busy people are, and not being able to do anything to help with all the free time in the world, all while hearing “everything is great” from most people on my team…some days I can’t quite figure out what’s really going on.
This really stood out to me in studying for the PMI-ACP. While I found the material pretty interesting and practical, it ran counter to almost every daily interaction at work (despite years of attempted improvements). As depressing as that sounds, the study material gave me hope that the situation I’m currently in isn’t representative of what could be or what is normally accepted in the field. I got a similar kind of feeling watch Apple’s WWDC keynote presentation in June—although daily work-life tells me average is just fine, it’s nice to have a bombastic reminder of how much better things can be when you don’t allow “good enough” to limit your potential.
I am grateful for my employment status, my partner’s help, my drastically-reduced spending needs, my fortuitous living arrangement, and my strange, wide-angle brain for helping me see the good and the possible in all of this. But on average I feel paralyzed with barely anything worthwhile to do.
With all the time in the world, the games and shows I could never find the time for mostly feel meaningless next to the enormity of the danger and challenges we face. I find myself losing my patience with even the smallest daily frustrations. I’ve never been making or saving as much money as I am, I’ve never had more free time to do what I want, but I don’t feel like it’s adding up to much of anything. My capacity for positive thinking seems capped by an inability to see it as meaningful or tied into something better in the future. And every day I’m watching my country struggle with basic science and selfishness as we careen toward an almost-certain election disaster of some kind.
Endeavors like the podcast, our Mario Maker worlds and my silly Celeste meme video have given some focus to otherwise aimless time and given me just enough of an excuse to put aside the concerns I have no control over to focus on something I do (and that I want to do!). Bonus: all of these pursuits produce something I can have, be proud of and cherish forever.
With all the time I’ve had to think, I’ve noticed that I only really need the promise of a small, marginal amount of attention to the final product in order to commit fully to giving it my all. I don’t need the hope of big success or perfection (and frankly don’t want it), but I do need to feel like I’m doing it for more than just me or just a few folks. Having a small set of dedicated readers for this blog, or a steady listenership for the podcast, or a little group that will enjoy my video productions…that really makes all the difference in the world to allow me to unlock a mode where I can feel justified in enjoying the process. Thank you 💖
Replacing the schedule of a work week and normal rhythm with repeating weekly meals, date nights, bike rides and regular gaming time has also helped erase a lot of the decision anxiety and aimlessness. Early on we probably committed too much time to a regular schedule, but over the past few months, it’s been clear that being in sync on (and being able to look forward to) common together times, meal plans, alone time and small outings has made a critical difference in my mood and tolerance of the current situation.
It’s ultimately all about moderation. Too little scheduling or planning means lots and lots of micro-decisions that can cause frustration and little disagreements, and those tend to be outsized when stuck at home. Too much scheduling and there’s no room for adapting your activities to your mood (which changes a lot in this crazy time). The right balance for us so far seems to be:
- Have a ritual for ending work and starting home time (we go out for coffee)
- Plan dinners but leave breakfasts and lunches flexible, and give everyone a night or two to cook or plan something (to spread around the responsibility and keep activities diverse)
- Pick a couple time slots for when you’re specifically not going to do what comes naturally, i.e. break from the group for alone time
- Take time on Friday to roughly sketch out the weekend, the time you’re even less likely to have structure
That being said, I’m starting to see my life from afar—as this pandemic has gone on uncontrolled, I’ve found myself waking up and mentally charting out most everything that will happen for days, turning these reliable routines into boring rituals. Even the best strategies need variety over time, but there’s very little to be had this year. It leaves me worried about the next several months.
I wish I could say my outlook for the future was positive but it’s just tough right now. There’s no end to the pandemic in sight, and the damage its done to my faith in humanity will last even longer. It’s clear now (and probably has been for a long time to the less-privileged) that it’s more than possible for our entire lives to be written off without much fervor or pushback. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that assuming people will rise to the occasion is not smart money—that’s actually a rare, treasured quality that should never be taken for granted.
If this update reads like I’m: being productive making fun things, feeling hopelessly depressed, and acting both hopeful and pessimistic about the future, that’s about how I feel most weeks. I’ve written parts of this post feeling everything from very upset to very determined. The frequency of these ups and downs leaves me often wondering what I’m doing right or wrong with not enough time to figure it out before the next swing. It’s a bit maddening.
While we wait for time to pass, I’m doing what I can. We’re still walking a decent bit and biking once a week. I swapped out an old cheap desk with a nice standing one—hopefully that will help some. I’ll continue to toss away everything I can stand to lose, take on less personal projects, wind down my proactive commitments at work, and try to learn how to turn the leftover oxygen into something healthy, relaxing, and philanthropic.
I’ve been in Florida for almost 35 years with the same employer for 12. Somehow, eventually, I’ll figure out where I want to go and what I want to do. One day (soon) I’ll apply for jobs, visit places, move, and try new things along the way. And I kind of hope I don’t find much solace until I do.
Thanks for reading—stay safe and sane out there. 🐾