COVID-19 No. 6: You Mean We Have to Create Another New Structure?

HAVING SPENT THE BETTER PART of a workweek building a new daily structure to adhere to — all the more fun while onboarding at a new job — I’m now faced, as most of us are, with figuring out what Saturdays and Sundays are going to look like for the foreseeable future.

No trips to the dry cleaner.

No hanging out in coffee shops.

No browsing through bookstores.

No dinners out with friends.

No walking through the mall.

No ballgames to watch.

No Sunday-night visits to a favorite watering hole to conclude the weekend with a great friend, good beer, and the world’s best wings.

Hell, I probably won’t even be going to the supermarket for a couple of weeks. We stocked up a couple of weekends ago in anticipation of being housebound for a while.

As if we weren’t all making it up as we go along anyway, our viral lockdown has layered a whole new swath of What do we do now? onto our lives.

For me, I’m guessing that Saturdays and Sundays will include more reading and writing, more walking, more board games, more phone calls and texting sessions, more online shopping, more hanging out on the deck (thank goodness warmer weather is nearly here), more Wii and Xbox, more movies, more catches and soccer in the backyard. A lot of museums are opening up their digital collections to greater access, so I’ll probably check them out. And I have all kinds of work stuff I need to start learning.

How about you? What are you up to this weekend? | DL

COVID-19 No. 5: Walking Down Harrison

FOR THE LAST MANY YEARS, weekday exercise has been a first-thing-in-the-morning activity. Get up and get it done before any work and family obligations, following oft-shared advice. Some mornings it’s the gym, some mornings a 2-mile walk through the neighborhood.

This morning, the soaking rain that moved through overnight was still hanging around when I got up. Ordinarily, that would be no problem — a trip to the gym for a brisk half-hour on the elliptical. Of course, gyms are closed now, so that meant there wasn’t much to do except ride out the weather.

Which I did over the course of the day, jumping on numerous Zoom meetings, drafting messaging, and doing my best to learn as much as I could at the new gig.

Twitter, though. Twitter, man. I have a browser tab open to Twitter all day long for professional reasons, and today I participated in a great online discussion of things we higher-ed marcomms types need to be keeping our eye on. But that also means I regularly expose myself to the less reputable side of Twitter, the online free-for-all where everyone — everyone — feels empowered to weigh in with their own expertise, whether it’s legitimate or self-conveyed.

And today, that had me a bit more jittery. My work continued to provide welcome distraction, but the Twitter noise — ominous predictions especially — was impossible to filter out. I was left feeling angsty.

By this afternoon, the rain had drifted eastward, and though the skies remained appropriately gloomy considering our shared circumstances, the weather was fine for a walk. I finished up work, did a final check-in with a team member, and put on my sweatshirt to head out.

The activity did me well, and not entirely because of the physical exertion. Twice as I strode diligently, I encountered neighbors and friends, giving me the chance to chat for a few minutes about … well, everything that’s going on in the wider world. We talked with compassion and kindness, empathizing with our common situations and wishing each other well. At any other time these would have been meaningless, forgettable interactions, but today they were oases — islands of normalcy amidst a raging storm of fear, anger, anxiety, and uncertainty.

And here’s the thing: I walked away from them feeling better. Not rainbows-and-unicorns better, but just less flattened, less adrift. My heart was a little lighter. Not a lot, but enough to notice.

Connect with your peeps, friends, however works best for you. Whether it’s a walk observing the 6-foot distance or a FaceTime with your bestie or just a damn phone call with your mom, connect with your peeps. The normalcy will do you well.

At least, that’s what I found. | DL

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. 3: Welcome to the New Normal

TODAY WAS THE FIRST DAY of the rest of my life.

As it was for you, of course.

After a week in professional limbo — two days concluding the last job, three days off while the world wobbled, a weekend wondering what was coming next — I reported to work yesterday and had a great (if bizarre) first day. Among other valuable learnings, I found out I was to head home the following day and ply my trade from there for the foreseeable future.

The foreseeable future, then, started today.

Three-plus years of self-employment a lifetime ago conditioned me to the solitary professional life. But this new normal chuckles and offers a gleeful twist — professional solitude, sure, but in a household rattling with a high schooler, a junior high schooler, and a working spouse.

And my conclusion is … bring it on. It’s wonderful to have my peeps around, and thank goodness for the work.

The months-long understaffedness of the team I joined combined with the rampant uncertainty fostered by the coronavirus have plunged my immersion into ever-deeper waters. There will be no gradual ramp-up. This is higher education in mid-March, neck-deep in yield season, during an extraordinary time when we are charged with tamping down the panic and demonstrating our value over the long term, long after COVID-19 has exhausted itself.

No big deal, right?

The work, though. The couple of hours I spent in Zoom meetings and on phone calls today, my second day on the job, the urgency of things that needed to get done … well, talk about a distraction. Having a job to do, no matter where I was doing it, cleared out the uncertainty and fear, at least for a few hours. Walking a couple of miles at lunch with my family helped, too, as did shutting down at the end of the day and making dinner.

Fajitas, by the way. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Many public authorities are mumbling about re-evaluating the situation after two weeks. I have to think that we are at least a month, if not two, away from things regaining a whiff of normalcy. And that will be trying. Two cooped-up teenagers — one a graduating high school senior — will not be denied.

At the same time, we — all of us — had a good day. The adults did their jobs. The children studied, took breaks, studied, took more breaks, assisted around the house, and mostly kept their chins up.

Gritty was there for us.

And tomorrow, we’ll wake up, log on, and hit it again.

Because we’re the lucky ones — because we can. | 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