COVID-19 No. 4: The New Normal Is the Old Normal … Kind Of

YESTERDAY WAS A NORMAL DAY at work. Interviewed a candidate for an open position, had a one-on-one with a team member, met with a program director to discuss advertising, churned through email.

Except it wasn’t strictly at work, since the coronavirus has chased us home to carry out our duties remotely, and it wasn’t strictly normal, since it was just my third day on the job, and who is fully immersed in the usual task list on day 3?

The thing is, for all the disruption wreaked by the illness, those activities were grounding. I felt comfortable weighing in, despite my newbie status. Because of the wildly kinetic nature of things now, I’ve had to jump in quickly, mixing tasks that usually crop up over time with the usual learning of the ropes. And that has helped — it has been comfortably distracting.

So. Professionally, all has begun well.

Personally, though, things are a mixed bag.

Family-wise, we’re keeping it together. The girls have structure, thanks to a general schedule and robust to-do lists that combine household jobs with online learning through resources the school district has helpfully provided. In the late afternoon, when their “work” is done, they retreat to their screens for some well-deserved downtime. There have been no meltdowns — granted, it’s been all of a week — and they are rolling with things as hardily as anyone could expect.

But this normalcy — okay, sorta normalcy — has freed up some mental bandwidth for me to worry.

Not over health. We’ve been conscientious about social distancing, and should one of us contract the virus, we’re all in good enough shape that I don’t think the prognosis would be catastrophic.

No, the worry is a longer-term, existential concern. Not about the viability of the supply chain or the health of corporate America. I’m thinking about my local bookstore, my local brewpub, my local pizza shop, my local dry cleaner, the hoards of freelancers, solo practitioners, and small businesses that fill our staffing gaps — local places and services that lack the cash reserves to withstand a months-long collapse of daily business wrought by well-meaning people heeding the call to flatten the curve.

The women and men involved in these enterprises are our neighbors. They are our friends. When we think of community, they are the people who pop up in our mind’s eye. If they fall, our societal fabric will unravel, and fast.

Are we willing to stand up for these stalwart Americans? To advocate that whatever relief is granted support them directly? To demand that we close ranks in the service of the collective good?

I sure hope so. | DL

COVID-19 No. 2: Weirdest First Day Ever

SO YOU KNOW HOW STRANGE the first day at a new job is, right?

The awkward opening dance with HR. The introduction to new colleagues whose names blur together. IT’s transition of the computer in your new office from the last person to you. Having to ask where the damn restroom is.

Now imagine the first day at a new job amidst a global biomedical crisis the likes of which no one has seen in a century.

Welcome to your first day, newbie!

The good news is that it was a fantastic first day. My new job is intriguing as hell, my new coworkers are bright and talented and engaging, my new institution is proudly putting its stake in the ground, and my new working locale is vibrant, diverse, and exciting.

The bad news is … all of those things. Who wants to hit the brakes when a great ride is just getting started?

Philadelphia’s mayor is wisely shutting down what he can, and my new employer’s president is wisely encouraging remote work by all who can do so. These are the right moves, short-term sacrifices to increase the chances of long-term well being.

But for a new guy excited by new opportunities, eager to come in and crush it, and thrilled by how fun and interesting the first day was, the prospect of having to set all of it aside to work from home for the foreseeable future is disappointing. Such is professional life in the coronavirus era — I get that. A significant part of the work I do, though, is grounded in relationship building, and the best way to do that is face to face, across a desk or over coffee or having lunch. If you’ve figured out a way to do that while confined to your home office, well, do let me know, won’t you?

My work is in higher education, which observers have called primed for disruption for a few years now. This new reality — extended spring breaks, remote-only classes, barren campuses — isn’t what they had in mind.

But reality it is, and reality doesn’t care if it’s your first day on the job.

Like my new college and my new university, I’ll roll with it. I’ll make it work. I’ll accept that unprecedented challenges can be overcome with ambition and resolve.

And when it’s over, when I can meet new colleagues in person rather than via Skype or Zoom, I’ll enthusiastically shake their hands, buy them coffee, and listen to their stories. | DL

COVID-19 No. 1: Some Introductory Thoughts

THERE IS NO SHORTAGE of admonition or advice regarding the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the respiratory illness it causes, but as a writer, I found one piece of counsel most interesting and compelling.

Document this time.

I saw it on Twitter, proof that social media really can be used for good instead of evil, and more than one account I follow shared it. The thought is that once all of this is behind us, historians will want a record of how ordinary people lived through it. Not the rampant, immoral public deception of a presidency incapable of the barest modicum of decency and honesty, but the everyday experiences of the rank and file — women and men with jobs and schooling, kids and parents, siblings and friends, mortgages and rents, all of us trying like hell to muddle through this.

I am an off-and-on journaler, someone who almost always finds benefit in emptying a kinetic mind onto paper yet has failed to make it a regular practice. If there were ever a time to document daily happenings in hopes of quieting the noise, this would seem to be it. If it happens to serve history, so much the better.

And so this is the first in what I intend and hope will be a regular recording of … what? Each day’s situation, perhaps, its feel, its activities, and one person’s reflections on fear, hope, frustration, and, perhaps, optimism. For even as my fellow Americans react in some truly awful ways to a situation unseen in the lifetime of anyone currently alive, I choose to believe that good will come out of it.

In the late summer and autumn of 2001, when some reacted to evil with evil of their own, there was also grace, compassion, wisdom, and unity. These were the smaller, quieter moments, acts often outside the public eye, which made them that much more meaningful and important. It may be irrational optimism, but I think that when this time in history is accurately recorded, we will read of similar selflessness, courage, and honor.

We’re all in this, friends. Let’s help each other out and see it through with grace and good health, shall we? | DL

Back to Back, or Why I’m Especially Thankful Today

SEVEN WEEKS AGO today, I woke up for the first time in months without feeling as if my left leg were being crushed by a vise grip.

You wanna talk thankfulness? Today’s the day to do it, right?

Well, I’m crazy grateful for science, and medicine, and higher education, and simple human compassion, all of which combined to relieve a suffering I had never before experienced and would wish only on the worst of people.

***

This was me, three-and-a-half years ago.

A third injection after the two described in the link served to reduce the inflammation in my spine enough to eliminate the sciatica in my left leg. Life returned to normal. Eventually I began working out again, and even dug into a couch-to-5K to get back to running. I gutted my way to three miles every other day, finished a few 5Ks, and got my strength back thanks to the 7-Minute Workout.

This past spring, I started to notice a twinge in my left leg when I ran. It was mild enough to tolerate — which is to say, I opted for the middle-aged route of willful ignorance.

But the pain got worse. Months later, I can recall the run that compelled me to throw in the towel, to acknowledge that I hurt too much to keep going. Back to the GP I went. Back to physical therapy I went. Back to the MRI facility I went, to learn that the same problematic disc was again herniated. Back to the pain doc I went, to endure two more rounds of epidural injections in my spine. They were as delightful as the needlework I underwent in 2015, but were far, far less efficacious. I even tried acupuncture, and I’m a Western medicine kind of fella.

The pain continued to worsen.

***

If you’ve never suffered from chronic pain, I envy you, and hope you appreciate your good fortune. The tissue of the L5-S1 disc had again breached its rightful place between two vertebrae and was touching the sciatic nerve on the left side, radiating blazing hurt from the top of my hamstring to mid-calf. Constantly. With no relief.

The mental bandwidth expended to deal with such pain is enormous. I found myself forgetful and clumsy, two traits previously foreign to me, and emotionally shattered. The hurt was all-consuming. It was all I could think of.

Finally, finally, FINALLY, after all options had failed, the medical system sent me to a surgeon. He cut into only about 30 percent of patients who came to him, he told me.

And your herniation, he told me, is twice as big as the ones I usually see.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, a nurse slid a needle into the top of my left hand and wheeled me into an operating room. Someone dropped a mask over my mouth and told me they were just trying to get the fit right, and of course within five seconds I was out.

During the hour I was under anesthesia, the team cut a two-inch incision at the base of my spine. They entered my back, swept aside the curtain of muscle, and rummaged around to the spinal column. One of them snipped off the problematic piece of disc that was playing footsie with the nerve. One of them sewed up the incision.

Six hours after arriving at the hospital, I awoke in the recovery room. Outpatient back surgery — is it any wonder I’m grateful?

In the seven-plus weeks since my procedure, I have reveled in my relief. Friends and colleagues tell me I look utterly different. Dragging a leg behind me when I walked and forcing a significant portion of my brain to process constant pain apparently rendered me pale, drawn, and haggard. I’m brighter and sharper, they say, and that’s just how I feel.

As recently as half a century ago, the science that relieved my suffering didn’t exist. When I consider the thousands of years of humanity that had to endure unspeakable pain, I am humbled. And then there are the countless sufferers of hurt far worse than mine was, without the relatively easy fix that was available to me. Thousands of years from now, the surgery that healed me will be seen as barbaric. Yet it worked. It worked.

For everything that helped my doctors and nurses to reach the point they did, where they could do something to free my soul of the debilitating, punishing effects of endless pain, I am grateful.

I hope you are as thankful, but for less serious reasons.

May you have much to be grateful for.

Happy Thanksgiving. | DL

Running to Stand Still, or Why I Thrilled to Be Outside in 20-Degree Weather This Morning

NEVER IN MY LIFE did I imagine that I would ever turn into one of those people who get antsy when they haven’t run for a few days.

But last winter, not long into the new year, recognizing that my sloth wasn’t doing me any favors, I downloaded a couch-to-5K app and began training. A back injury a few years prior had forced me to give up running, but time and a few well-placed spinal injections of steroids had me feeling better. It was time to try again.

I followed the couch-to-5K program rigorously, and two months after starting, I was running three miles. Over the spring and summer and autumn and into the current winter, I tried to get out every other day; I haven’t gotten there yet, but it’s been frequent enough for me to enjoy the benefits.

Up until yesterday, 2018 was brutally, dangerously cold in Greater Philadelphia (as you may have heard). I ran New Year’s Eve and then had to skip nine straight days.

And I found myself — yep — one of those people who get antsy when they haven’t run for a few days.

Finally, this morning, came enough warmth — well, more like “warmth”; it was about 20 when I got up — to lace ’em up and hit the road. It was glorious. My legs felt fine and my wind was great. It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed a hint of achiness in my quads, the result, I suspect, of nine days of inactivity.

They’re still a touch sore, six hours later. But it’s a soreness that hurts so good. | DL

Lumbar Liquidators, or How Back Pain Is Not Something to Mess With

IF YOU WANT to get an idea of what it feels like for a whale to get harpooned, I suggest you herniate a disc in your lower back so severely that an anesthesiologist has to insert a needle into your spine and inject a dose of steroids in hopes of reducing the inflammation. Twice in the last month I’ve undergone such a procedure, and in each case my mind flashed immediately to Melville.

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The Elusive But Vital Pursuit of Balance, Part 571

TDsweatsTHINGS WERE proceeding smoothly, until suddenly they weren’t. Everything blew up.

Work exploded, as the calendar moved into my department’s busiest time of the year and we took on a major new project on top of our usual other duties.

Home exploded, as the girls added play rehearsal and spring sports to their already lengthy litany of activities, as I tacked t-ball coaching to my bulletin board of commitments, and as J. and I delved further into the planning stages of a big-time renovation initiative.

And I exploded, as months of wintertime consumption and hibernation had me feeling heavy and dull, my clothes uncomfortable and my body looking decidedly middle-aged.

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Why New Year’s Resolutions Are Crap Without This One Important Thing

YOU FINISH your list yet?

If not, you don’t have much time. It is the 31st, after all. If you don’t figure out how to be a better you in the next 15 hours or so, you’ll have to spend the next year as the current, subpar you.

Then again, if you’re like me, you can make it easy by recycling past years’ resolutions. My annual late-December self-reflection tends to yield the same goals: Continue reading

Why My Body Is Thanking Me for Getting So Damn Sick a Couple of Weeks Ago

IF THERE is any advantage to losing a week in December to an illness that knocks you on your ass, it is that you are forced to slow down and take everything easy. You simply lack the capacity to do anything else.

I’m still playing catch-up on sleep, and because my strep-ravaged throat made swallowing a new adventure in pain, I haven’t eaten much over the last couple of weeks. As a result, I have lacked the energy to over-exert myself, as well as overindulge. Last night I drank all of two beers, the most I’d consumed in a fortnight. It’s hard to envision wanting to have more than that at any point in the near future. Continue reading

A *Guaranteed* Way to Lose Weight This Holiday Season

soupEVERYONE KNOWS how difficult it is to maintain healthy habits over the holidays. Parties abound, and overindulgence is practically expected. We tell ourselves that things will change in January, that we’ll right the ship and get to the gym and all that, so we may as well get our calories’ worth in December.

Well, what if I told you I had a sure-fire way to lose weight during the holiday season? With no fancy diets, no expensive workout equipment, no tracking of foods?

Today, friends, is your lucky day.

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