COVID Capers

Carolyn and I needed groceries and a few things to effect some necessary household repairs, so donned our masks and out we went. Groceries would include frozen items, so we stopped at Lowe’s first.

It was a nightmare. They had marked most of their doors “Exit Only,” with a single point of ingress—but people still wandered in an out of any door they pleased. There was no attempt to limit the number of people in the store. Perhaps ten to fifteen percent of the people were masked. I saw only one employee with a mask. No customers observed any kind of social distancing. We got what we needed and got out, hoping we don’t need to go back soon.

The grocery store was better, but not by much. All of the staff were wearing masks—although one cashier had hers pulled down so that her nose was not covered. But still, many customers were bare-faced. Naturally, people too inconsiderate to wear a mask also thought nothing of crowding you in tight aisles. And this was a health food store, where I expect shoppers would be more healthy-conscious than the general public.

We’re not going to stamp this thing out with half-assed measures half-heartedly observed and enforced.

Cheating

I had insomnia last night. It wasn’t the kind of insomnia where I’m alert, so I might as well do something. I don’t mind insomnia on those nights. It’s a little extra time to read or write. Often, I don’t even drag the day after those kinds of insomniac nights.

No, last night was the kind of insomnia where I can’t sleep but every cell in my body is weary. Forget getting up to read or write; I couldn’t focus enough to enjoy watching a TV show—not even one I’d seen before. I dragged all day. Coworkers on videoconferences noticed my energy was low. I had to assure them that I wasn’t depressed, but weary.

This is a long way of saying that I don’t have to brainpower to engage with a journal prompt tonight. Two of the three cards I drew from my deck of prompts don’t apply to me. Both are in the genre of wishing you were someone else. The third, though, is juicy. I want to dig into it, but I can’t focus. Tonight, I’m cheating. I’ll save that card for another evening.

Too few to mention

Today’s journal prompt asks, “What decision should you have made yesterday?”

I should have decided to eat more vegetables.

Last year, I started working with a nutritionist to improve the quality of my diet. One of the rules she suggested was to eat a fist-sized serving of vegetables with lunch and dinner. I do that more often than not now, but yesterday, I didn’t eat any vegetables.

It’s a stressful time, and I felt the stress more yesterday than I had in days prior, so I ate a lot of cheese and bread. And crackers. I did have some fruit, but no vegetables.

That’s the literal answer for the journal prompt. I expect whoever crafted it intended a more introspective answer. A lot of the prompts in this deck of questions revolve around past regrets. Those are hard for me to answer. I’ve come to be comfortable with who I am. The mistakes and missteps I’ve made along the way all contributed to me becoming who I am. I don’t dwell on regrets.

Even the vegetables, to be honest. Sometimes, a man needs to eat cheese.

Breathe

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Photo by Fabian Møller on Unsplash
Last Thursday, I had a very stress-filled morning. I had more than twice as much work as I could do in the two hours I had before I left for the airport to fly home. I knew I couldn’t get it all done, but the size of my task list still overwhelmed me.
 
I have become pretty good at recognizing that paralyzing feeling and I know how to cope with it. I closed my eyes and did a couple of rounds of 4-7-8 breathing. Calmer, I took up the most important task on my list. After finishing it, I used the breathing technique again to maintain my balance. I repeated the cycle until it was time to go. On the way to the airport, I tweeted about it:

The technique is very simple. In case the embedded tweet isn’t visible, here are the steps:

  • Inhale deeply for four seconds
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds
  • Exhale for eight seconds.

Repeat as necessary.

On Friday, I had another stress-filled morning, and I even put a note at the top of my to-do list: “Breathe” is all it says. Every time I finished a task and looked for the next thing I need to do, I saw the reminder to take nineteen seconds for my mental health.
 
I don’t know why this technique works, but it does. It lowers blood pressure and helps manage stress. Try it when you feel stress. It makes a big difference.

 

 

Air Cruelty

I am writing this on my flight home from a business trip. The man who boarded ahead of me has a thick, hacking cough. He insisted, “I don’t have what everyone thinks I have. It’s just a cold.” I didn’t ask how he could be certain.

I sat in an exit row seat—the one with extra legroom. He sat a row ahead of me on the other side of the aisle. No one sat in his row, nor did anyone else sit in mine. No one needed to—it’s a Southwest flight, and it is only 2/3 full, so there is plenty of space.

As people filed by, many gave him dirty looks. Others mocked him, some criticized him. One man complained to the flight attendant, “Now my exit row seat is ruined.” I heard someone mutter, “Irresponsible.”

Maybe it is. I know I’ve flown while sick before. “I have to get home,” I thought, and considered it a necessity. I never really thought about whether that was a responsible thing to do. If I were sick right now, would I have declined to fly, or would I have decided that my need to be home outweighed the risk to others? I have to admit that I likely would have done the latter.

I do think it was irresponsible of him to take an exit row seat, no matter how willing he may be to assist in an emergency. But his choice doesn’t justify the way people treated him. Fear is understandable. Cruelty is indefensible.

On working sick

All the COVID-19 news has made me think about an incident from when I was a clerk at Waldenbooks in the early 1990s.

One morning, I woke up with a scratchy throat, severely congested sinuses, and a fever. I was scheduled to work an eight hour closing shift that day, but recognized that I needed to stay home and stay in bed. I called my manager and told her I was sick and wanted to use a sick day.

“If you don’t want the hours, find someone else to work them for you,” she said.

I tried to explain that it wasn’t a function of not wanting the hours. I was sick. The only time I stopped coughing was to sneeze. It was better for everyone if I didn’t come in. But she insisted that if I didn’t want my shift, I’d have to call around to our store’s part timers to see if any of them could fill in. Otherwise, she expected me to show up at one o’clock. And if she couldn’t rely on me, next week she would cut my hours and let someone else have them.

I couldn’t find anyone to take my shift, and I damned sure couldn’t afford to have my hours cut the next week. I was barely making ends meet in those days. So I went in. I worked a full shift and closed the store. The next day, still sick, I worked my scheduled opening shift. The next week, three of my coworkers were sick. And I can only imagine how many customers I infected.

So all the advice from people saying that if you feel even the littlest bit sick, stay home? That’s great in theory. But for too many low-wage workers, it isn’t an option. If you’re barely making ends meet, you work sick. You need the money. You need the job.

 

The 30 Day Optimism Challenge

My peculiar brain chemistry makes me prone to depression, and toward the end of last year a variety of triggers, internal and external, damaged my equilibrium. Setbacks weighed on me more than they should. Every day felt like a chain of uniformly unpleasant events. When I realized last month what was going on, I knew I needed to change my thinking. The trouble with depression is that it drains your ability to take action, so I chose two simple tasks that I could do each day to change my outlook. I called it the “Thirty Day Optimism Challenge.”

In the morning, I would name one thing to look forward to. It didn’t have to be anything major. Some days, it was as simple as, “I look forward to coming home tonight.” And it didn’t have to be something that would happen that day. One day, I named a weekend trip to Saint Augustine that my wife and I were planning. The idea was to remind myself that no matter what was going on right then, something positive was on the way.

At night, I identified one good thing about that day. It was usually something simple: watching pelicans dive for fish during my morning commute, reading a good essay, or meeting a friend for coffee. It wasn’t about ignoring bad things, but about not focusing on those things exclusively.

I recorded the answers in my pocket diary. Writing them down made them concrete, and my mood began to improve by the second week. I began to make a game of finding something good—how early could I spot something I could use that night? Eventually, I started noticing so many good things each day that I had trouble selecting just one! And in the morning, if I couldn’t think of something to look forward to, I’d make a plan: tonight I will call my best friend. This weekend, I will visit the bookstore. I always had something to look forward to on any given day—whether it was something that night, the next week, or in a few months.

Yesterday was Day 30. The challenge worked. I feel more optimistic, and I’ve decided to keep up both exercises indefinitely. Depression will still surface from time to time, but I hope those incidents will be fewer, rarer, and weaker if I remember to keep my eyes open for the positive things in life.

On Mindfulness Meditation

Yesterday, I finished a ten-session introductory series of mindfulness meditation. Although I was originally very skeptical, this short introduction has convinced me that the practice is worthwhile.

I first encountered the concept of mindfulness as I prepared to become a full-time ScrumMaster. I had long sought this career path, but I worried that I wouldn’t be up to the challenge. One of the books I read recommended mindfulness meditation. Around the same time, I saw a blog post recommending an app called “Headspace.” It’s a free app that starts you off with a free ten-day course, so I had little to lose by trying it.

Still, I resisted. It was scary to try something new, and I was skeptical of some of the outlandish claims I’d heard about the benefits of meditation. A little research revealed that most of what I’d heard had to do with Transcendental Meditation, a different thing entirely. There was solid data to suggest that mindfulness had a lot of benefits to both physical and mental health. On New Year’s Eve, I decided to start.

Sitting down for the first session brought up a lot of familiar anxieties. What if this doesn’t work? What if I look stupid? (Even when no one is around, this is something that plagues me, but that’s a subject for another post.) What if I’m wasting my time? What if I’m no good at it? What if I’m incapable of doing it? Will that mean something is wrong with me? I nearly quit before I started, but I’d promised myself that I would try it.

I keep my promises.

In the first session, I could take a deep breath in with no trouble, but exhaling kept coming out ragged and choppy as anxiety roiled my mind. I had a lot of trouble following the guide’s gentle direction. As though fear and anxiety weren’t enough to contend with, other concerns fought for attention: about my writing, fitness and health, home repairs, personal issues.

I got through it, though, and I did feel a little more tranquil when the session was over.

Over the next three days, as I got used to the practice, it was easier to breathe steadily, and it grew easier to settle my mind. I ended each session a little more relaxed than I started it. By the end of the course, I looked forward to my ten minute time out each day.

Naturally, I’m far from mastering the practice. During the last session, the guide said, “And now, let your mind do whatever it wants to do, just for the next ten seconds or so,” and I started to giggle. That was all I had been doing. It’s going to take a lot more practice, but at least I’m less troubled by the fact that my mind is awhirl with thought, and I’m no longer trying to chase those thoughts down or control them. In time, I expect that I’ll learn to unclutter and improve my focus.

I’m not sure that I’ll continue with Headspace itself. Additional courses are available as a subscription service, and I don’t like that business model. My father promised to send me some meditation CDs he has used. (If I’d known he does it, I might not have resisted the idea so much!) Meanwhile, I’ll run through the introductory course again. It certainly won’t hurt to review and reinforce the basic concepts.