Working From Home. Still. So Far.

So about three months or so ago I wrote a post about the pandemic and the coming lockdown and what I thought about why people were losing their minds over it. I generally still stand by what I wrote then, particularly about transitions and information overload and the way we as humans tend to respond to disruptions and anxiety. Today I’m writing about pandemic-related business again.

So three months into this thing, how are we doing?

As a nation, not great. The lack of leadership has been astounding, even compared to the track record over the last three years. I can’t even go into it here. Lots of other people have, and I’ll let them, but suffice it to say this is my current social distancing bingo card.

That said, my daily logistical life has been overall pretty reasonably good. Stable, for the most part. I have found that there are some things about working from home which I rather like. (I was teaching synchronously on Zoom to mostly engaged students, so my experience was maybe anomalous.) I missed seeing my colleagues and my students in person, but working from home in our house is not miserable. We are steeped in good fortune in that sense, since all four of us can work or school from home without being on top of each other, and the kids didn’t have to do school in their bedrooms. I never for a moment forget our privilege in that regard.

But I will also say that working from home had a steep learning curve, for a variety of reasons. (And those reasons weren’t necessarily the same for each member of my family.) I found, as a teacher, that grading on my computer took about three times as long as grading on paper. And for all my apparent wisdom about transitions, I did not allow myself enough of a transition time to move from one modality (teaching in person in a classroom) to the other (teaching on Zoom). So things took a lot longer than I expected, and that caused me some real stress. It took me a while to come to an awareness that my mindset had been struggling to shift and adjust. After a couple of weeks, I accepted that I was still in a kind of transition myself and needed to cut myself some slack over it. Only after the awareness and acceptance could I take meaningful action, which was to get my work actually done. (For what it’s worth, I was not alone in this, even as a teacher; most of my colleagues were going through much the same process.)

In my post a few months ago I noted that I wasn’t panicking or having anxiety attacks, and to my general surprise and delight, that has mostly held true over the last few months. (Knock on wood.) As someone who suffers from anxiety generally and who has felt the existential dread of living under the current regime since it was just a gleam in a crazy person’s eye, I am pleased to report that I’ve had only a very few meltdowns over the last three months, and they were fairly brief.

As I have noted before, action dispels anxiety. For me, that means that I do things rather than stare at the walls in despair — or at least for 85% of the time, I do. That’s just how I cope. I had the necessity of cleaning out my home office (my study, my studio, whatever) so it could become my classroom. It took me three days over Spring Break, but I’ve been generally pleased with the results, and once I finish getting art on the walls, I’ll post about my workspace. (If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll note that my cats like to hang out in here. About a month into distance learning I told my principal I didn’t think I could teach without a cat in the room anymore, so we should think about getting me one for my classroom. He laughed, assuming I was joking. Dear reader, I was not. But that will be a conversation for another day, I suspect — probably in August.)

I’ve been on a major decluttering kick for quite a few years now, and being in lockdown gave my family the opportunity to get some of that done. Well, I saw it as an opportunity. My family (especially the kids) saw it as a chance to prevent Mom from going nuts and throwing out all their stuff. Tomato, tomahto. We’re not completely finished yet. However, stuff got cleaned up and cleaned out, and I’m calling that a win.

One significant revelation I have had is that for the first time since I had kids (and y’all, they’re both teenagers now), I had downtime on the weekends. Yes, it was enforced because where was I going to go? But also, it’s kind of wonderful. I do not miss the hectic-pace lifestyle we had before in which I spent most of every Saturday and Sunday running errands, and wow. Dear reader, we do not want to go back to that.

I have not abandoned my social life, although it has significantly changed. I am grateful to have Zoom so this can be possible. I’ve hosted dance parties, art and jewelry making parties, and had many conversations with faraway friends. My writing critique groups meet online now, and participation is substantially more robust and improved now that we can video conference from home. I’ve even attended the occasional happy hour or game night. All to the good.

On the other hand, out here in the state of Texas, which is badly governed during the best of times, things are becoming stressful. The state did not meet its benchmarks for opening up — I’m not sure any of the fifty states did, by the way, though correct me if I’m wrong on that — and now our cases of COVID-19 are rising significantly. We had been in really good shape, nowhere near capacity in our medical facilities here in Houston at the largest medical center in the world, and now? Can’t really say that anymore. We opened up the state too soon, and while some people are handling this in a mature way, knowing that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something, enough people out there have decided the pandemic must be over because they can hang out in restaurants and bars again.

So let me say this again for anyone who hasn’t gotten the message:

Wash your hands. Wear a mask in public. Stay home if you’re sick or if you don’t have to be out. PLEASE.

Here are a few other reminders of things you’ve probably seen in memes and which are also, in fact, true:

Opening up doesn’t mean the pandemic is gone. It just means they have room for you in the ICU.

We stay home now so that when we can safely get together again, everyone will still be there.

Economies recover. Dead people don’t.

Look, I recognize that this may seem very glib for me to say because I haven’t lost my job and can get pretty much all my absolute necessities met, and because I live in a house that’s enough. It doesn’t mean that everything is easy, though: my kids miss their friends terribly, I miss my friends and family a lot, too, and it would be really great not to have to worry about everything so much. But those of us who have the ability and freedom and privilege to take extra precautions for the safety of ourselves and others should do so.

And in this regard, I recognize that this isn’t all about me. Or my situation. Or even my immediate family’s. It’s about the wider community, and our obligation to be responsible for the wider community, recognizing that our actions are not in isolation, especially when we ourselves are not isolated.

Isolation is not fun. Even the introverts in my house are a little tired of it. And I get that.

But still.

I suspect I will be writing more about this, and I promise it won’t always be in my Stern Teacher Voice. Just wait till you find out about the movies and TV we’ve been catching up on!

Peace out.

Poem-A-Day: Mike Alexander

I first met Mike Alexander — with regard to being a poet, he went by M. Alexander in those days — back in the late 90s at a regular reading series in Houston that was held at a dive bar called The Mausoleum. I think I learned about that series from Bucky Rea, who had been in a poetry class with me in college, and I read at The Maus in that series every now and then. That bar’s owner took the place through several incarnations, including Helios and Avant Garden. In the mid-2000s, I ran a monthly bellydance show there called Eclectic Bellydance; it was a fun and easy gig; the bar’s owner had actually been a member of the first dance troupe I was in, too. I can’t tell you how many concerts and festivals I’ve been to at that place. It’s a Houston institution and has for decades been a haven for artists of all types.

But I digress. As a poet, I’ve always trended toward the reclusive, not attending or even giving readings very often. But eventually I did come back into the scene more regularly and found Mike again at a Mutabilis Press anthology launch party. We were both published in it. Mike also runs a reading series in Houston now called Poetry FIX at Fix Coffee Bar — incidentally, next door to Avant Garden (or whatever it might be called now). That’s a fantastic series.

I’m so pleased to be back in touch with Mike again, and equally pleased that he shares a poem with us on the blog more Aprils than not. He’s extremely adept with form, capable of “hiding” even true rhyme in the clever rhythm of his work. Enjoy this wry and deft critique.

 

OUT OF EGYPT

In time of plague we all subscribe
to Exodus. Hysterical,
the paranoia of our tribe
eclipses the merely clerical
dispensaries of diagnosis.
We anodyne the tell-tale sores.
Obedient to a coxcomb Moses,
we butcher lambs, then tag our doors.
Ankh-eyed, mummified & Coptic
at the threshold, one hand reaching
for our dollop of antiseptic,
we echo back the viral preaching.
An angel of quarantine shall slaughter
the firstborn sons of swollen glands.
Believers, see the parting water.
Inoculate. Wash your hands.

***

Go to this month’s first Poem-A-Day to learn how to participate in a game as part of this year’s series. You can have just a little involvement or go all the way and write a cento. I hope you’ll join in!

***

Mike Alexander came to Houston in 1996.
Everything here is so extraordinary, it’s hard to define the ordinary. Nevertheless, he contemplates the quotidian every day.

Monday Earworm: Michael Bruening

So this week I will begin teaching online. I’m looking forward to some aspects of it, although I suspect that the longer it goes on, the more I will sincerely miss being with my students and colleagues all together in one place. Here’s hoping the new dynamic is worthwhile.

In the meantime, I’m hoping to keep other routines in place as much as possible for the sake of easing stress. Still, I suspect my first day online with my students is going to be show-and-tell of our pets…

A Few Thoughts on This Whole Pandemic Thing (And Why I’m Actually Not, Surprisingly, Freaking Out Right Now)

I know everyone is a little on edge right now, and that’s understandable. As a person who openly struggles with anxiety, I really do get it. And I want to start this post by acknowledging that I am definitely taking the coronavirus seriously. It needs to be taken seriously, and we have a moral responsibility to do everything we can to slow down the spread of this disease. I truly believe that and am enacting appropriate measures to that end, not just because I don’t want any more people to catch it but also because our health care system needs to have a chance to catch up and not be overwhelmed. Flatten the curve.

However, I am not panicking. And — again — as someone who openly struggles with anxiety —  and in particular with anxiety when it comes to my health — this probably seems just plain weird. But I want to explain why I’m not freaking out right now, and why I think the rest of us shouldn’t freak out, either.

First, I have some thoughts about why there are long lines at grocery stores, why some of their shelves are empty, why several of the people I’ve encountered lately have been running around half-rabid with panic-furrowed faces. You can read umpteen million articles online about the psychology of scarcity (real or perceived) and the fear-contagion effect, and it’s probably a good idea to do so if you tend toward worrying. You can also read plenty of pieces about the real science and facts behind COVID-19 that will probably calm you down; I recommend this too. And if you want a nerdy and fascinating look at why soap and water are super effective against this and other viruses, check out this tweet-thread.

But the main thing I want to remember during this frenetic moment is that we have been here before. Over the last couple of days, a lot of the worst anxiety I’ve encountered has centered around the idea that “nothing like this has ever happened before,” or the also-popular “we’ve just never seen anything like this before.” And while it’s true that we have not in recent memory encountered a global pandemic while also being “led” by anyone quite like this, if we break the current situation down to some fundamental parts, you’ll see we have been through this before — and we came out of it.

Remember other difficult times? For some of you, that might be 9/11. For some, hurricanes or other natural disasters. The older you are, the more frames of reference you have. We came through those, but they freaked us out while they were ongoing. Sometimes transition times are like watching something scary happening in slow-motion. You think you have an idea of how it’s going to end up, but the moment just keeps going and elongates the apprehension. (And in hindsight, that apprehension gets compressed and some of that feeling goes away.)

So yes, we have indeed been through this before, if you break down what we are currently experiencing into two main parts: transition and information overload.

Transition:
*  We are in a moment when things are happening quickly around us. Events are being cancelled, places are closing down, our lives are filled with uncertainty. (For some of us, that profound and existential uncertainty has been going on for a good three years at least. This current situation is only compounding it, which makes everything feel exponentially worse.) All of this may feel disappointing at best and unnerving at worst.
*  That uncertainty about the future can be terrifying. So people go to the grocery store and stock up on things related to things that they feel vulnerable about, like toilet paper. (It doesn’t matter that COVID-19 isn’t a diarrheal illness.) Other people see them panic-buying and do it, too. That’s part of the fear-contagion effect. The thing is, panic-buying gives us the illusion of control over our situation, and then when we can’t do it because the shelves are empty, we have the sense of no control, and that causes panic. (See how this cycle feeds itself? Stop panic-buying, please.)
*  Anytime we go into a period of transition, things can feel unsettled, so we can feel unmoored. But the important thing to remember about transitions is that they are, by nature, temporary. We are moving into a series of new habits — working from home and social-distancing, for example — that will probably start to feel normal-ish, or at least not wildly untethered, once we adapt to them. Humans as a species are eminently adaptable, which often bodes well for us.

Information Overload:
*  Let’s talk about our reliance on being plugged in. If humans are adaptable, we must recognize that our newest generation is a little bit cyborg: our technology has become an extension of our selves. As such, we may feel glued to our screens, and those screens may be popping up with push notifications every few minutes with “updates” telling us every time another case of coronavirus has been confirmed in a region near us.
*  While information can be helpful for many people, this hyper-vigilance might actually do more harm than good, because the subconscious urgency of the word “alert” and the phrase “breaking news” causes us, frankly, to go into freak-out mode. This keeps eyeballs on the news, which in turn enriches the people who advertise on the news. It might be worthwhile to just stay away from broadcast news for a little while.
*  Any time we’re in an evolving situation, “news” is going to come in fast and furious and sometimes incorrect. If we checked on it only once a day (or twice a day, spaced out significantly like in the morning and in the evening — but not at bedtime), we would probably be a little more reliably updated and would probably feel less panicked about it.
*  Seriously, unplug. It helps. Find hobbies that aren’t online. If you already have them, enjoy them. We cancelled our Spring Break trip and are staying home. I’m planning to make some visual art and read some books and am really looking forward to it! I find reading fiction and making art to be therapeutic and generally beneficial to my life. What works for you?

Again, I know the coronavirus is something to take seriously. And I am. (See also: We cancelled our vacation and are staying home and practicing social distancing.) We’re washing our hands and disinfecting surfaces. We’re not taking unnecessary risks. And we’re also not panicking.

Bear in mind the actual facts:
*  This virus can be killed with the most ordinary stuff: soap and water. Slay it. It is in your power to do so. Do it.
*  Cases of COVID-19 are going to increase as more people get tested. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more of it out there, because it was probably already out there before we started paying attention to it. More people are getting tested now, so it’s going to look like it’s increasing.
*  For the vast majority of cases, this is a relatively mild illness, and the vast majority of people do recover from it. People who are in especially vulnerable populations are more at risk, but most people are not “especially vulnerable,” and we should do what we can to help protect the ones who are. Use common sense and follow the science on this one.
*  This is all going to get worse before it gets better, in part because the news is going to get worse before it gets better. But it will get better.

Avoid speculation and catastrophic thinking. And if you’re prone to anxiety, as I am, this requires conscious effort. But it will help.

In the meantime, what kinds of things do you like to do to de-stress? Share it in the comments below so we can all find some fun new self-care techniques!