Journal of the Plague Year 2020: Take the Next Step

This was the best weekend ever. It was also the worst.

On Saturday, I talked to my sister again, and ended the conversation feeling agitated and unhappy. I asked her why parents are so worried about keeping kids home — I know what I read in the papers, but obviously I can’t relate. She said that in a lot of ways it comes down to screen time and suicide. A lot of kids are playing video games or online looking at crazy shit nonstop. Also, the school where she teaches had a suicide last year, and the faculty and staff are worried about kids being without support and structure.

As soon as she said that I thought, Of course. Kids can find all kinds of stuff about cutting and eating disorders online. And for a lot of kids, the school day is the only time they don’t have their phones. That’s a whole separate post which I’ll tackle later.

Soon after she and I talked, I read two articles in the New York Times about doctors, nurses and EMTs struggling with fear, guilt and suicidal thoughts because they can’t save everyone. I told her, “These really hit home for me. I couldn’t stop crying, because it reminded me of last year.”

I spent the last two years working 50, 60 and 70-hour weeks. In the fall of 2019, I was on range for three weeks straight, genuinely worried about my team’s health and physical safety. I got through it, at the cost of two rounds of punishing illness. The feelings of that time are captured at the end of The Magnificent Five, when Inglorion leads a group of sick and dying slaves through a snowstorm to safety, then gets scapegoated and publicly humiliated. He nearly dies of gaol fever, while Valentine and Lucius face charges for killing three Gypsy guards, who are arguably civilians.

I saw myself sitting there, sobbing as I emailed, and I realized how bad it was. I made a lot of changes to take care of myself. I changed programs and bosses, and went part-time. I’ve been really impressed and heartened by how well the company has responded to the coronavirus challenge. But if I’m honest, I’m still exhausted and demoralized. Every day it’s a struggle to sit down and concentrate, to just wade through the naturally occurring bullshit and solve intransigent technical problems.

So I was pacing around the house on Saturday, thinking of these things. On top of everything else, I was worried because I’m chronically dehydrated, and have felt sick with the heat for days. There was a heat wave over the weekend, so it reached 85 in the house on Saturday, and 108 or 109 outside. The humidity was 40 percent, and the swamp cooler was struggling. I thought, OK, just fix that. It doesn’t help if you get sick.

So I switched from swamp cooling to air conditioning, then went to Walgreens and bought ice, popsicles, cold packs and a ton of water, just as if I were going to Yuma Proving Ground or China Lake. I texted my neighbor to the south to make sure she’s okay — she’s in her 70s, and only has a swamp cooler. She was lively and chipper, but I figured, okay, she knows she can call if she needs ice.

I wrote. A worked on setting up a home recording studio so that I can record a podcast version of this blog. Escalating heat. Miserable humidity.

A few hours before sunset, a storm started to build, providing apocalyptic lighting effects and distant thunder. At 5 p.m., the wind kicked up, lashing the newly-trimmed trees against the roof. Thank God I had them trimmed — a strong monsoon can easily take out a mesquite.

At sunset, a random lightening strike took the power out. The lights went brown, then died. The mini-split gave a little groan and closed its vents.

I opened all the doors and windows, and sat in my living room window and watched the storm come in. It was magical, just like when I was a kid: Sitting there in the dark, watching the wind rise and fall, hearing the inevitable sirens, seeing people walk by with flashlights. It rained in sheets, then stopped. By 9 p.m., the wind died and the heat and humidity were stifling.

I used my phone to check the TEP website and confirmed that, yep, about 165 households lost power. They were working it. My neighbor texted to see if I was okay, and we had a little friendly back-and-forth about the heat and the trees, and how long it might take to get a fix.

I’d frozen a bunch of bottles of water, so I sat there in the dark, running them over my forehead and shoulders and chest, then drinking them as they thawed. I thought about someone whom I loved 30 years ago. I still dream about him. I spent some time remembering how it felt to be desperately, mutually in love. I wondered if that will ever happen again.

Just before midnight I closed the house up and moved to my bedroom. The heat was shocking, miserable, and frightening, too. The forecast temperature for Sunday was a low of 84 before sunrise, climbing to 111 or 114 in the afternoon. I made contingency plans: Going into work, contacting friends with swimming pools.

The power came back around 1:30 a.m. The appliances gave the same little, defeated groan, this time in reverse. Everything hummed and brightened. The room cooled quickly. By sunrise, I knew it wouldn’t spiral out of control.

Sunday, another day of writing and talking to friends and fiddling with recording equipment.

I woke up this morning dreading work. Should I go in or stay home? No one will be there. I can’t concentrate. I’m failing at this. What am I doing wrong? Why do I feel so shitty and anxious and miserable? Looking at the case numbers online. Pacing, wondering how to keep moving forward. I hate this. I’m scared. I can’t think. I can’t concentrate. I can’t write a test report when the world is on fire.

Going through the motions of normal life: Taking a bath, brushing my teeth, dressing. Should I go in or stay home? I can’t stand working from here. I don’t want to be stuck in a deserted, post-apocalyptic tech park. Where will I get lunch? I don’t know how to move forward. I don’t know how to keep going.

Then I remembered: The only way to move forward is to move forward. Take the next step.

I can’t solve for a national pandemic, or man’s inhumanity to man, or our fallen nature. What’s the real problem here?

I don’t want to do this. I’ve lost heart.

Okay, so go talk to your tech lead. He’s experienced and kind, and he wants to help. Everyone who leads an engineering team goes through a shit storm like the one you had in November. Just reach out and ask for help. Tell him you’re struggling.

And I realized that I don’t ask for help or talk about anything personal, because I don’t want to deal with coming out at work yet.

So I started to see the true contours of the problem. I need to be authentic, genuine and honest at work. In my case, the difficulties of leadership are bound up with being a Woman in Engineering (dreadful phrase) working far above my pay grade, knowing that all of my peers are more money. Plus, the fear of losing it all when I come out.

So, yeah. All of that.

The real lesson, is twofold:

When you don’t know how to go on, just take the next step, then the next one.

And keep defining and re-defining the problem. Yeah, there’s a pandemic. I can’t solve that. But I can see how it’s affecting my life, and what kind of crazy I’m getting from it. I’m exhausted and demoralized. I haven’t done my taxes. I need to come out and I don’t know how.

It’s actually a relief. Those are solvable problems, ones that are within my control. I can see the laydown on the battlefield. I know the objective. I can take the next step.

I leave you with the numbers, as of 7/12/20:

Confirmed Covid-19 cases in Arizona: 122,467
Current hospitalizations: 3,432
Deaths: 2,237

I’m going to start omitting “recoveries” because Arizona counts people discharged from the hospital, not ones who have repeatedly tested negative for the virus.

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