A series of long, non-gaming posts. Mostly to just document this extraordinary time. Part I is here.
Life in the Bunker
Continuing from last time– During the spring while the supply chain was stabilizing somewhat– at least it seemed like we weren’t likely to starve in the near term, much of everything else remained in a state of precariousness.
On the work front, management’s initial denialism from January and February was overtaken by the events of lockdown. I make the distinction here between leadership and management. We had plenty of the latter and scant little of the former.
Fortunately, when the lockdowns began rolling out county by county (and thereby potentially impacting our offices and all of the employees differently depending on where they lived), our former leader was recruited back to a temporary position of de facto leadership to help guide our organization through these existentially dangerous straits. A little demonstration of leadership in a crisis goes a long way. Particularly one that remained clear eyed, rooted in factual reality, capable of communicating and cognizant of the fact that human beings were involved in the process.
We found ourselves with a business, far from “essential,” with about two thirds of its employees unable to work. The pandemic and lockdown prevented all but the most rudimentary activities in our offices, and most couldn’t do their work remotely in any case. Temporary layoffs were the order of the day.
The rest of us were desperately trying to work for our customers whose lives and businesses were thrown into chaos as well. It wasn’t even clear how any of our customers were going to survive the disruption (and frankly, whether we were ever going to get paid, and thus whether we would survive in any recognizable form).
Painful austerity was the order of the day until the path forward was more clear. All (real) businesses rely on their cashflow to survive– they do what they do, they sell/bill for it, collect, and pay it out to vendors and employees. Something that my colleagues and co-owners seem not to have learned or perhaps may have forgotten. If customers can’t pay you, you can’t pay yourselves regardless of what you might think your skills are “worth”.
Not that we had much say in it of course. See my rant above about management versus leadership. Our group, being rather conservative on the fiscal front, continued in the austerity posture for quite a few weeks. It was becoming clear to me in side conversations with several of my colleagues that many of them appeared to be stretched financially by the sudden change of fortunes.
There’s an opportunity here that I won’t take to pontificate (subjectively of course) on the relative world views (and relative financial condition) of the boomer generation at or near retirement age, the Xers living perpetually in that shadow, and the Gen Ys, Gen Zs, Millenials and whatever else the younguns are called these days. Too broad of a topic for this post, but suffice it to say where you fell in those cohorts radically impacted your perspective toward the pandemic, austerity, risk and your ability to weather the storm– a fact that seemed lost to management.
For the record, being born in 1965 places me either in the latest definition of the boomers or in the earliest of the Xers. I tend to identify more closely with the social and financial circumstances of the Xers rather than the boomers.
Very early on in the crisis, I had to stop and do the math to reassure myself that true implosion and disaster was not imminent. Perhaps its a survival mechanism I developed, but when confronted with a crisis or difficult situation, I need to visualize and model out the worst case scenario or I tend to be consumed by the great black unknown. If I can attempt to mitigate or compensate for that– or failing in that effort, at least identifying the number of milestones on the road to oblivion– I tend to be more clear eyed, pragmatic and level headed in these situations.
With the “mystery” of a disaster scenario having been explored, at least some of the anxiety dissipated and that energy can be repurposed into seeking to mitigate or avoid those same disaster scenarios. It may happen, but it wouldn’t be a surprise, and as bad as it might be, we’d have some semblance of a plan for it. At least that’s the way my mind works.
Hoping for the best but needed to plan for the worst, I paused to take stock and assess the BIG PICTURE. As adults(…), we’ve tended to live within our means, with a penchant for having a decent rainy day contingency fund just in case.
At my prior employer, we called this “FU Money”– That’s the amount that you’d need to be able to comfortably say “FU” and walk out the door when any day when you finally couldn’t take it any more– the antithesis of the golden handcuffs that many with undergrad or grad school debt would suffer. Since the Great Recession, we’ve adhered to that policy.
Most of the U.S., and apparently quite a few of my peer, middle-aged colleagues, do not. I could tell they were getting stretched and the anxiety and fear was creeping into their voices. Big mortgages, slightly too expensive cars, leased or bought on credit, lifestyle choices that didn’t include “paying yourself first”, etc. had many of them pushed to the edge.
As April turned to May then to June with the future unclear, I was concerned people might start heading to the exits as few seemed comfortable enduring extended austerity (and by “extended austerity” I mean a nearly complete suspension of salary without a clear plan forward). Where they might think they could go was a mystery to me given it was bad everywhere.
Relief efforts, for our furloughed employees and their families, for those of us still working at starvation wages, and for our customers started to trickle through the economy and by July, it began to appear that our company and most of our key customers would survive the year at least. Perhaps not thrive, but post-COVID the measure of success was lowered to “still standing.”
Waiting to Exhale
Lockdown hit almost literally on the first day of Spring. Winter in Northern California isn’t exactly Siberia in January, but still the weather was improving as we all learned to live within our four walls.
We don’t have children, so I cannot imagine what parents must have had to deal with attempting to work from home and handling remote school for the kids. Based on my own experiences, I’m confident I would have gone insane. I’m sure many if not most simply didn’t have the physical space to create dedicated adult office space as well as a school/study place as well. It was just the two of us and I was still going nuts.
Attempts to break the cell block confinement mindset were fraught with peril. Transmission rates were still very high and information regarding transmissibility was still very much unclear. A few years ago, we had moved to a new development in which decent houses were placed on small lots which surrounded a park, some walking trails and was adjacent to some open space. All that with no yard maintenance.
With everyone locked down at home then, the sidewalks and pathways were log jammed. After a week or two into the lockdown, we gave up going for our afternoon walk because we found ourselves constantly ducking and diving to maintain social distance from folks. Add to that everyone coming and going in both directions (and no mask protocol in effect at that time either), and going for a walk was becoming anything BUT a relaxing break.
We began exploring a few alternative locations to find some open space to walk, perhaps with some nature, and most importantly with a minimum number of people. We settled on a levee trail near a creek on university land that we could access within a few minutes drive.
Daily, we would escape and get a few miles of walking in and, as a result, watch the landscape change as Spring marched toward Summer. There was something reassuring about seeing nature carrying on seemingly oblivious to the unfolding drama around it.
Even so, a relaxing walk still wasn’t exactly plain sailing. Social protocols, especially outdoors, were uncertain. Should a jogger or cyclist wear a mask? Should they announce when they were approaching someone from behind? Should walkers wear a mask? Should/would everyone move to keep at least 6 feet from other groups?
Still, seeing green, breathing the air made a huge difference in how I slept and my overall physical shape. More subtley, it started to realign some priorities in my head.
I mentioned in my first post that we had begun vegetable gardening in earnest in our very small apartment sized yard. Of course, few or no garden centers were open (and even if they were, it may not have been worth the risk), no seeds were available online so we resorted to collecting seeds from supermarket produce, searching through those ancient opened seed packets that we had leftover from years ago and developing propagation strategies from any plants we had.
With pots and grow bags were steadily filled our space with greens, basil, peppers, beans and a few others. We pretty much filled our small outdoor space. Gardening was becoming a place of refuge where we could at least attempt to seize back control over some small aspect of our lives in the pandemic.
These efforts along with feeling a bit boxed in at our home started percolating through my mind. The idea of finding a new abode with some more buffer space as well as true garden space became a stronger and stronger impulse. If the pandemic were going to be with us for a while and the work-location paradigm was shifting, a new situation might be a better fit, notwithstanding the risk and chaos associated with purchasing a home, selling a home and moving during a pandemic.
In our small town, housing inventory is always a bit constrained because of the impact of the university. Add to that our relative proximity to the Bay Area (with substantially more affordable housing prices) and many larger companies permitting a permanent work from home situation made for a constrained and limited housing market. What little was becoming available wasn’t exactly compelling, anything that looked remotely interesting was getting multiple cash offers over asking price and were going quite quickly.
Suffice it to say, we found an older home on a decent sized lot in an older part of town and after a small bidding war, we prevailed. Nothing about the transaction was easy– getting a loan with uncertain and variable income was a challenge to say the least; viewing any property was biologically dubious; and managing a move minimizing any third party involvement was fraught. Still, the move was only a few miles across town, we didn’t have that much stuff, and we were grateful for the assistance of trusted friends who were in our COVID bubble to accomplish the move.
By the beginning of September, we were getting settled building our new base which includes a large backyard vegetable garden that has become our new daily focus. As an added bonus, moving into an older and yes, perhaps a bit neglected, home, we are never wanting for repairs and improvements which is something I actually enjoy.
Having things upon which to focus your efforts (particularly if they are physical and leave you exhausted) has been a good thing both physically and psychologically during the pandemic. Being able to get outside and work in the yard without being cheek by jowl with everyone else is a gift.
Settling in to the New Normal
Throughout the fall, coping with COVID was becoming something close to normal. We had our routines– deliveries were available for many things and for those where it wasn’t, curbside pickup was on offer from many retailers. Relief resources, meagre as they were, trickled through the economy and activity (and work) returned to something more like normal. It became clear that financial disaster for my company and most of our customers was not going to happen, but what the future looked like remained uncertain.
Instead of COVID anxiety, electoral anxiety became the focus for the fall and as everyone knows persisted into the new year up to inauguration day in January. Too big a topic for this post.
With the prospect of vaccines on the horizon, political stabilization and the functional persistency of COVID coping strategies in place, a bit of hope if not cautious optimism seems to have returned. Many seem to be ready to turn the page on the pandemic and start planning for “Life after COVID.” Too bad there ain’t no such thing. There is only “Life with COVID” now– perhaps with less impact on our daily lives than during the height of the pandemic, but persistently, with variants and continual coping for the foreseeable future.
Change and disruption is hard, yet once disrupted, we seem to find our new equilibrium states relatively quickly, no matter how bleak or desperate the situations. Speaking for myself at least, its almost the change moreso than the circumstances that creates the greater anxiety.
As the pandemic was unfolding, adapting to the evolving situation was precarious and psychologically difficult. Once a new relatively safe routine was re-established, life became manageable again. Now with vaccines rolling out, new variants circulating and companies and governments planning for relaxations of the lockdown restrictions, we are entering into a new phase of change and disruption.
How do we leave our pod bubbles and revive in some form the world we left behind? Will that be any safer or more dangerous than the lead in to lockdown? Vax no vax, mask no mask, office no office, all the time or some of the time, etc. Personally, the foreseeable end-of-lockdown-as-we-know-it is starting to revive many of the anxieties and concerns that were only just tamped down to a manageable level.
Still, the extended lockdown has left its indelible mark on me and all of us some in ways we are only likely to understand in the years to come. In the next post, I’ll reflect on some of the things taken away, given to us and lessons learned so far.