Sunday, May 17, 2020

Shelter in Place (Day 61): Coworkers

The first time we shared an office was the summer we met. It was 1991 and Carissa was a summer intern at the daily newspaper where I toiled as a young punk journalist. We married the next summer after she graduated college and we each followed separate career paths. The summer of 1991 remained the one time we shared the same work space.
Until now. After a gap of nearly 30 years, we are together again, sheltering in place as our modest part in the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. For the past nine weeks we’ve become “coworkers” again. Living, working, sleeping, eating, breathing, trimming our toenails, leaving dirty dishes in the office kitchen sink, and dirty socks on the executive suite bathroom floor. Together. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. Week after week. Fun fact: this time around, for better or worse, we are no longer a couple of love-struck kids sharing office space. In fact, we are joined in this coworking venture with a couple of kids of our own, a college freshman and a sixth-grader. The Office meets Married with Children, except set during a modern Plague that triggers the next Great Depression.
I am grateful for many things right now. We are healthy. We are food secure. Probably a little too food secure. Carissa and I both have jobs and can work from home. Our kids are with us and safe. Their distance learning experiences seem to be mostly working. We have three bathrooms. I am also grateful to everyone who makes it possible for people like me to work from home. When we come out on the other side of this I hope we examine who we value, and how we value them. We also need to remember those many people whose jobs and businesses are gone or at risk right now.
So I don’t want to bemoan my personal circumstances. Kidding! I do want to bemoan my personal circumstances! Like many of you, I am adjusting to the new normal of working from home and spending all of my time – all of it – with my family. So much togetherness! As our college kid observed the other night, it’s hard to separate “home life” from “work life” when it’s all one life. Then she asked to sample one of her mom’s hard ciders. Momma is highly protective of her hard cider supply so the answer was a hard no, but I respect the kid’s hustle.
Initially, I aspired to post a how-to guide on how to absolutely crush working from home with your family during a pandemic quarantine. But, as it turns out, I have not crushed working from home with my family during a pandemic quarantine. I am scrambling every day to figure out how to balance work and school and family and sanity and how not to drink half my monthly booze supply in the first ten days of the month. The reality of our new reality is that anyone claiming that they are crushing working from home with their family during a pandemic quarantine is (a) lying, (b) full of shit, or (c) both. It’s not even the “working” part that is the problem. All I need to perform my job is a laptop, cell phone, and internet access. Just that and a few blocks of uninterrupted time every day.
But there’s the unicorn. Those mythical blocks of uninterrupted time. Home life and work life are all one life. My coworkers and I try to establish routines and boundaries and adjust to one another in our shared office space. One coworker learns that it’s rude to blow his nose loudly while another coworker is addressing her board of directors on a conference call. A different coworker says it’s embarrassing when a supervisory coworker barges into her bedroom and scolds her about the mess without realizing its all playing out on Zoom in front of a middle school math class. And some coworkers bristle when accused of wearing the same T-shirt all week when it was in fact only three days, four at most. That’s not even factoring in the stunts of the cat who is incapable of sauntering past a webcam without announcing her presence. Finding routines and establishing boundaries is an ongoing process and I have discovered no shortcut, no #lifehack. I will not be the one to tell you how to MacGyver your work from home experience.
But there is something that I can tell you. Reuniting as a coworker with Carissa after so many years has been revealing. You can learn a lot about your spouse when you spend a couple of months listening to her work. And when I say “listening to her work” I mean we literally listen to the sound of her voice every day, all day, and sometimes on evenings and weekends. It’s not always her voice. Sometimes I hear other voices coming out of the speakers on her computer. I am reasonably confident that I can now match the names and voices of Carissa’s entire staff even if I’ve never seen some of their faces.(They are doing great work, by the way.) But it’s mostly Carissa’s voice filling our home, starting each day with a 9 a.m. staff meeting. Am I exaggerating? Consider that our youngest coworker wrote her mother a note in the form of a clue in a plastic egg that was part of an Easter morning scavenger hunt, providing instructions for finding the next hidden clue. The note said: “You will find me where you Yak Yak Yak all day (in a good way!).” The clue was in an egg hidden on the built-in desk in a converted hallway and storage space that Carissa has commandeered as her office. We did not realize how great the acoustics are from that corner of the house until the last two months. So loud! 
We learned some good stuff while listening to our coworker over the past two months. The kids and I had front row seats to some inspiring acts of leadership, for starters. Carissa is the CEO of a K-12 education policy organization that represents state education leaders. When coronavirus cases began to spread and school across the nation began to make difficult decision about whether or not to close, and what would happen if they did, she and her team were instantly engaged. They worked long hours in those early days to provide information and guidance to state school chiefs while pressing political leaders and federal agencies for relief to help schools navigate an extraordinary moment in history. She’s been interviewed by Politico, New York Times, and other media outlets.
There is another side to the coworking experience, though. A darker side. The side that can test even the strongest relationships. Carissa, you see, understands the importance of using stories as an effective communications technique when making larger points to an audience. What the rest of us have come to learn during our time as coworkers is that sometimes those stories are about us. And they are not always flattering! Sometimes they’re embellished! During one meeting Carissa described our children as “going feral” in a story intended to signal that everybody is struggling with work and family boundaries and that’s OK. Our younger coworkers overheard this story while they were both in their rooms quietly doing school work. I’ve overheard comments about my quarantine beard, which she openly loathes. In one particularly heinous instance, I listened to Carissa on a call repeat something funny I told her a few days earlier when the sketchy ice cream truck rolled through our neighborhood minutes after the governor’s statewide order locking down ”non-essential” businesses became effective. My observational humor as told by my partner for life provoked laughs from her audience with no credit to the creator of the material.They say laughter is the best medicine, at least untils you discover you’re married to a joke-stealer.
There are moments when work life and home life being one life feels like a lot. I don’t have answers on how to manage that feeling. We’re safe and healthy and for now that has to be enough. And it’s no small thing to watch – or listen to – your spouse engage in a national education crisis with a laptop and a cell phone from a desk in a corner the basement of your home. When I first met Carissa in a Nebraska newsroom during the summer of 1991, she came across as smart, talented, and exceptionally competent. What I’ve learned as a coworker during the covid-19 pandemic of 2020 is that if anything my first impression of my future spouse was woefully insufficient. She has been remarkable. 

Another differences between 1991 and 2020 is that maintaining a secret office romance is more difficult when you sleep in the same house with all of your coworkers. To be fair, a not-secret office romance isn’t that simple either when the coworker you share a bed with is snuggled in with a laptop catching up on work email. And one coworker stops in to complain that she can’t sleep. Another one is practicing the harmonica downstairs. The cat bats a toy mouse down the hallway into the room. Life in a pandemic. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Shelter in Place: Day 33

I’ve been hunkering down waiting out this global pandemic for more than a month now. A span of time sufficient to recognize the vastness of the difference between what I anticipated I would accomplish during my isolation versus what I have actually accomplish. As it turns out, my big plan to spend more time reading, writing, and pursuing other creative interest didn’t materialize. What did materialize is binge-watching all seven episodes of Tiger King on Netflix.

Originally I imagined sheltering in place could be managed by focusing my energy on those things that I could control: staying home as much as possible; maximizing social distancing; keeping on top of my work; being sensitive to the way I interact with my family; securing essential supplies (i.e., eggs, coffee, whiskey, and toilet paper); figuring out the number of consecutive days it is appropriate to wear the same socks. Those sort of things. As a corollary, I imagined minimizing the energy I would expend on things beyond my control: how long it takes to flatten the curve; ventilator distribution; progress on a Covid-19 vaccine; the state of my 401(k) plan; when schools will reopen; survival of the human species. I’d let those things go.

I also anticipated extra time in my day. Getting ready for work would be simple. No need to shave or put on pants. Roll out of bed, grab a cup of coffee, and fire up the laptop. No commuting in D.C. traffic. No hustling a kid to practices and games. Then add in the time not spent watching college basketball or major league baseball, both cancelled by Covid-19 concerns. I carefully plugged all the variables into my statistical Coronavirus Quarantine Extra Time Model™ (CQET model), which predicted I could expect to reallocate at minimum 10 hours each week to creative endeavors.

So my big quarantine plan was to control what I could, ignore what I couldn’t, and use my extra time on self-improvement. When better than a global pandemic to focus on personal betterment? I would finish the neglected 700-page history of the United States from reconstruction through the gilded age that sits half-read on my nightstand and then speed through the Ta-Nehisi Coates novel, a Christmas gift, that’s next up in the stack. I would write more words for my blog. Not just more words, but beautiful words that would capture a moment in time or an eternal truth. Maybe learn to play guitar.

None of the above came to be. In hindsight, what in the actual hell was I thinking? From the moment we went into shelter-in-place mode, I was acutely aware that both my wife and I would be working full time from our house while our sixth-grader and our college freshman would be engaged in distance learning from that same house. And that we would fight with the sixth-grader (the
 one who farted on me on Day 5 of shelter-in-place) about unloading the dishwasher and cleaning the cat’s litter box.  And that her psychology major sibling, a Bernie supporter and college newspaper opinion writer, would be sharing a lot of hot takes about society and culture. And that we would be in the midst of staggering unemployment and business closings as the nation remained under attack from an invisible enemy predicted to kills tens of thousands of Americans and infect hundreds of thousands more. 

It turns out this was not the ideal time for me to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Here’s what went wrong:

1.     The “don’t-worry-about-things-I-can’t-control” debacle. I’ve been a compulsive consumer of news most of my life. So the idea that I would suddenly, while living in a moment of epic historical significance, choose not to freak out over current events was incredibly misguided, to be generous. Of course I am going worry about shortages of protective gear for nurses and doctors, lack of hospital beds for suffering patients, people losing their jobs and businesses. Yes I will be consumed by maps and charts showing the awful progress of the virus, watching for curves to flatten. Will I be outraged by news coverage of college kids crowding Florida beaches taking body shots of tequila off each other’s sun-burned stomachs? By the feckless political leaders who declined to stop these gatherings? Yes and hell yes. Reading the news and being outraged is just something I do. I should have recognized from the start that I would not discover my moment of Zen.

2.     The “control-the-things-I-can” fantasy. All I have to say about this is that I can’t even stop myself from touching my face. I can’t stay out of the Amazon-delivered bags of Easter candy– and I don’t even enjoy milk chocolate that much. The idea that there are things that I can “control” is an illusion. Social distancing is within my control until a stranger on a nature path who apparently isn’t a good judge of distance attempts to stop me to engage in conversation. And as note above, I can’t make myself stop obsessing about the news. The notion that I possess the degree of self-control necessary to embark on a journey of personal betterment does not comport with that reality. Stay up late with: a) a good book, or b) a glass of whiskey while posting snarky political commentary on Twitter? I think we all know the answer.

3.     The “extra time” fallacy. Statistical models are only as good as the assumptions they rely upon. For example, my CQET model failed to consider that I would not use the extra time for creative endeavors but instead would use it to stay up late drinking whiskey and posting snarky political commentary. So I did not end up with the extra 10 hours per week devoted to creative endeavors that I my CQET model predicted.

The good news is that I now possess the self-awareness to know that I lack the self-control to control things within my control. And that I lack the self-control to ignore things beyond my control. Better news is that our family coziness allows me to watch my kids demonstrate resiliency and compassion under historically challenging circumstances. Also to fight with each other and me and their mom, but mostly resiliency and compassion. I’ve also learned what it’s like to be my spouse’s co-worker. Not coincidentally, I’m working on a new post with lessons learned about becoming co-workers with your spouse. And I’ve made it into the twentieth century on my reading journey from reconstruction through the gilded age. Progress.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Shelter in Place: Day 5

On the evening of Day Five of our family’s pandemic shelter-in-place isolation, my 12-year-old very deliberately and loudly farted on me after I told her to pick up dirty clothing from her bathroom floor. I was not amused by her response and very deliberately and loudly shared my thoughts with her. Which in turn caused her to be outraged at me for failing to appreciate that farting on dad was an obvious joke and I should not be angry with her, she should be angry with me for failing to appreciate her humor. It escalated from there. 

What was remarkable is the farting incident was the first notable negative outburst in our home since my wife and I decided early on to restrict our social interactions as our small effort in the larger campaign to limit and slow the spread of the coronavirus. We made the decision without fully thinking through the fact that we both can be strong-willed and opinionated and that we have passed those traits on to our childrenUnder the best circumstances, we can be noisy and disagreeable over issues big and small. Lock us into a confined space for an indefinite period and it could turn into a goat rodeo in a big hurryYet so far into our self-imposed isolationism, our collective behavior has been, farting incident aside, pleasantly agreeable. 
The kids deserve much of the credit. Our sixth-grader’s last day of class was March 13. Our college freshman came home on March 15. Both have extended spring breaks through the end of March and then begin remote learning for the rest of the school year. Our college kid is forgoing a trip to Colorado with friends, opportunities to work and save money, as well as any of the freedoms earned by typical 18-year-olds home from collegeShe has not complained or lashed out or sulked. Instead, she has engaged her 12-year-old sister in constructive activities, including “bullet journaling” which is the process of using a blank journal to create your own daily planner/life organize. They go on daily walks. They’ve been to a local park to shoot baskets. They’ve taken a yoga class from a YouTube video. They cleaned and organized the junk drawer in the kitchen.
Our youngest is an extrovert and extreme social animal. In normal times, she plays on competitive soccer and basketball teams and up until last week had practice or games most days of the week as an outlet for her extra energy. In her ideal world, she hangs out with her large circle of friends just doing stuff. Our no-in-person-contact-with-friends rule hit her hard. She needs her people. I am proud of her for managing her disappointment and understanding her personal sacrifice is part or a broader effort. And thanks to social media she still can interact with friends. Yesterday she demonstrated that it’s possible to converse on FaceTime with four friends simultaneously while also grabbing a snack from the kitchen pantry
Not all of my kids’ peers have been as limited in their in-person interactions as my kids have been, of which they are regularly reminded through social media connections. I know they must feel like they are missing out but they’ve understood. Admittedly, we’ve drawn a harder line on social distancing than some. Did we make the best decision? Could we loosen some of our restrictions? Honestly, we don’t know. But it feels right for us (and is increasingly the rule many communities, cities, and entire states). 

Outdoor bike rides and neighborhood walks to break the monotony are encouraged but we consciously maintain the recommended six-foot distance from friends and neighbors we see on the streetEspecially those neighbors who share longseemingly pointless, stories and aren’t good at reading social cues. Currently, in my state of Maryland, bars, restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters have been ordered closed and we limit trips to the grocery and liquor stores. But Governor Hogan, please consider this notice: if you shut down the liquor stores, I will riot in the streets (careful, of course, to maintain a six-foot distance from fellow rioters).
My wife and I are fortunate in many ways. Our jobs are not in danger. We are both able to work from home. We have healthy immune systems. We’re old, but not at increased risk to die from COVID-19 old. And we have good kids even if at times they will literally fart on us when we tell them to pick up their dirty clothes. I plan to spend more time blogging during my confinement because it helps me organize my thinking and maybe share experiences with similarly situated friends. For instance, I have some thoughts about what it’s like to work in the same space as your spouse. You can learn a lot about a person when you are forced to hear them talk on conference calls 10 hours a day. I also have thoughts about sheltering in place with someone who has already ordered a rototiller and ingredients to make our own hand sanitizer from AmazonWhat is happening? We are not the fucking Little House on the Prairie!

Or maybe that’s where all of this is heading. Stay tuned. Maybe you can use our rototiller to start your victory garden in exchange for a roll of toilet paper.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Letting go

It’s May 3, 2001 and outside it’s snowing. Nothing unusual for Laramie, Wyoming. I remember it only because I am watching the swirling, drifting snow from the window of the maternity wing of Ivinson Memorial Hospital while holding my newborn daughter. My first moments as a father. She arrived in the middle of finals during my final year of law school. But I’m not thinking about that. I want nothing more than to hold this baby girl.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Nebraska isn't for everyone.

Nebraska officials recently announced a new campaign centered on a slogan designed to sexy up its underwhelming reputation as a tourism destination: The new slogan designed to sexy up Nebraska for tourists? Honestly, it’s not for everyone.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

8 simple things I suck at

Dissenters may exist, but I generally believe myself to be of reasonable competence and fair to middling intelligence. To earn my keep, I’ve engaged in everything from shoveling pig shit to dispensing legal advice. They’re similar, yes, except 1) the work environment is generally more pleasant in a barn full of hogs, and 2) a good hot shower can rinse off most of the stink. But I digress. The point is, I’ve managed to acquire a relatively wide range of life experiences over the past half century or so and these varied experiences generally serve me well in navigating simple day-to-day challenges. While I don’t claim to be MacGyver, give me enough baling wire and duct tape and I can get shit done.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Christmas Story

Every great story has a villain. Christmas stories are no exception. Remember King Herod? Ebenezer Scrooge? Hans Gruber? The burglars from Home Alone? This year, our family has its own Christmas Story. And it brings me no pleasure to confess that the Grinch of our story is me. Or at least it was.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Road Trip

We began our journey early in the morning on the 4th of July. A father-daughter road trip, the start of a grand American experience. The cross-over SUV was fully fueled and packed. Riding shotgun is the 52-year-old dad in a Mariner’s baseball cap, cargo shorts, a UPF +50 button-up shirt, and the low-top Converse sneakers he wears when his wife isn’t there to give him that look that says he’s too old for Chuck Taylors. The 16-year-old daughter is behind the wheel, tank top and denim shorts, her own hat slung low over her brow, perhaps to avoid recognition. The possibilities of the open road beckoned.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

It's not you, Country Music, it's me

Dear County Music,

I heard that you featured the Backstreet Boys on one of your fancy televised award shows the other night and the crowd loved it. The fucking Backstreet Boys. Are you kidding me? But you know what, County Music? I ain’t even mad.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ignorance without arrogance

The other day a hubristic 31-year-old “senior White House official” made a widely televised cringe-worthy appearance that reminded me that I wanted to write about one of my brothers who runs a blog titled Ignorance without Arrogance. Don’t worry. His blog is not about politics. Neither is this post. Judging from daily news events and social media content I’m seeing lately, though, a lot of us would be served by giving the concept behind the title at least some thought.