Life in a Time of Pandemic: The First Few Weeks

Grilled cheese on homemade bread.

If you’ve heard more than enough about the COVID-19 novel coronavirus and need a break, please stop here and go find something else to enjoy.  I know that hearing too much about it all can get overwhelming, and I’m not in the least offended if people need to take that break.  If you see a similarly titled post in the future, you can feel welcome to not even click through, because it will also be a virus related post and I want all my readers to take care of themselves mentally and physically during this crisis.

That said, one of my personal coping mechanisms is to write.  Whether that’s a fictional version of myself getting out of a crap situation, a happy story to make me feel better, or working out my thoughts “on paper.”  Writing is how I manage a lot of things in my life, from planning to my emotional and mental wellbeing.  So today, I wanted to share a little of the writing I’ve been doing to think through and process the situation we all find ourselves in.

The spread of COVID-19 in my area was slow to start (or at least was tracked slowly at the start), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t upending a lot of the normal routines of my life (as evidenced by this post going up hours later than typical).

I’m very fortunate that my job can be done remotely, so my income hasn’t been affected by the mandate from my university for all but mandatory employees to work from home that came down in mid-March.  University employees are also lucky because the university is offering paid administrative leave (for now at least) to anyone whose work can’t be done at home.  That’s especially important for our housekeepers and those who work in dining.  It’s really heartening to see that from my institution and I hope that continues until we can all safely return to campus.

Not everyone is as lucky as I am.  Those who work in retail and food service are especially vulnerable right now because they can’t do their work remotely and because their jobs require them to interact with the public.  I have several friends in this situation.  Two of them are recently married, working three jobs between them, and are understandably worried about making ends meet with hours reductions and layoffs happening across a huge swath of this sector and the unemployment benefits expansion being slow to get started.  I have another friend who works at a grocery store.  I can’t even imagine how stressful that is right now with everyone panic buying and freaking out, or just not following proper procedures for social distancing while in the store.

More recently, my county (and several surrounding ones) mandated shelter-in-place and will be enforcing it to try to limit the spread and make people only go out as much as they have to.  The fact that the government is having to make people take this seriously and curtail their movements to protect themselves and everyone else is a little ridiculous to me, and I really wish I lived in a country where the government worked, was respected, and actually had the best interest of all citizens and residents as its top priority.  (Sorry if I’m getting a little political.  This situation is really highlighting what’s wrong with capitalism and the lack of social safety net in the US in relation to basic human survival, human decency, and human rights.)

In light of all that, I know that my struggles may seem ridiculous and easy to manage in comparison.  I’m not losing income, I’m able to get the minimum supplies I need, and I’m not in any of the high risk categories for the virus to be deadly.  It could be so much worse.  But that doesn’t invalidate what I’m dealing with.  In these kinds of situations, it’s important to not see it as a competition for who is struggling the most.  Everyone’s struggles are valid and everyone deserve sympathy and support.  I say that more for myself than anything else.  I often struggle with voicing my concerns and issues when others in a space are obviously dealing with things far worse than I am.

I talked a little last week about how I’m making sure to get the social interactions I need to stay stable and happy, so I’m not going to get into that too much today (this is already looking like a potentially record-breakingly long post).  My writing group and my RPG group are both working to move online so we can all still have fun together without being exposed to each other physically.

My biggest struggle so far has been adapting to working at home.  This is as much, if not more, about physical space than it is about not working from my office.  I have a back issue that means sitting for extended periods of time is painful.  Work got me a standing desk and a laptop stand for taking to meetings, so I do pretty well when I’m at the office.  At home, I have much less professional solutions.  For the first week and a half, I was working from my laptop, with an external keyboard, mouse, and second monitor.

Laptop with spare monitor and keyboard on box and two laptop stands.

That’s all held in standing-height positions by a box full of books, and two portable laptop stands (one mine, the other the one work bought me).  This is not the most ergonomic set up in the world.  The keyboard and mouse are at the right height, but using the mouse for extended periods makes my hand hurt because of how the heel of my hand interacts with the box.  The mousepad doesn’t stay put, and the monitor is a little wobbly whenever I touch the box, move the mouse, or in any way physically interact with the desk itself.

The mouse problem could be fixed with my pen tablet.  However, the pen tablet installed on my laptop doesn’t play nice with some of the websites and software I have to use for work, so it’s basically unusable.  That lead to me deciding that I needed to borrow my desktop computer from the office.  So I went in on a Saturday (before shelter-in-place orders had gone out), when there was almost no chance of anyone being in my building, and successfully gathered my CPU, my keyboard and pen tablet, and the cables I needed for the spare work monitor I still have at home (I’d only gotten my hand-me-down personal monitor the week before they sent us home, so the work one hadn’t made it back to work yet).

But that still left me with ergonomics issues.  The laptop stands aren’t rated for the weight of a monitor, so I was going to have to figure something else out.  So I took a couple hours to scan through desk options on Amazon (because all my shopping is online now if possible) and found some options for both legit standing desks, and standing desk conversion lift things that were in a price-point I could justify.  I’d been making do with stuff like my stands and boxes because I didn’t use my desk at home enough to justify spending money on one.  But If I’m going to be standing at this set up for 40 hours a week, it needs to be good for my body.  (Self-care is important!)

This lead to the purchase of a standing desk.  Fitting it into my spare room already full of two desks, and a ton of boxes full of stuff wasn’t super easy, so that’s going to get a post all its own soon.  You can have a little preview of the final set up though.

New Standing Desk Setup

The ergonomics weren’t the only thing I was trying to adjust to.  When things are normal (can say things are every normal? Perhaps routine would be better?) I take an express bus to work in the morning.  That involves being awake by 5am so I can do my physical therapy exercises for my back, wash my face, do my hair, dress, pack my lunch into my work backpack, and leave the house by 6:30 to get to the park and ride to catch my 6:43am bus to campus.  I have a set of 20-minutes word sprints scheduled on my NaNoWriMo Region’s chat so I can write on the bus each morning.  It started as a November thing, but people liked it so much we’ve been doing it every weekday for two years straight. So I get some writing done on the way to work and get to campus at about 7:10am.  I use the remaining time before 8am to walk to my building, eat breakfast, do a little more writing, and generally settle in so I’m ready to work at eight.  I have a morning routine that really works for me.  Or at least I do when I’m taking the bus to work.

Now, I’m struggling to get my routine in order.  I’m finding it very hard to be out of bed at 5am when I don’t have a bus to catch.  I still need to do my physical therapy exercises every morning if I want my back to remain in good shape and be able to sit for short periods when I want to (so I can do things like drive when this is all over).  When I do the full set of exercises, it takes about forty minutes.  I can usually get cleaned up and dressed in about thirty minutes.  If I want a shower in the morning, it’s closer to an hour.  So if I have to be “at work” by 8am, I’d only really need to wake up by 6:40am, 6:10am if I want a shower.  If I want to participate in the morning sprints, I’d need to be up by about 6am if I’m doing sprints right after physical therapy but before I get ready for the day, or skipping the first one to use that twenty minutes and the ten-minute break in between as my thirty minutes to get ready.

Originally, I was thinking it would be good to just stick to my 5am wake up time so I was consistent and then I wouldn’t have to transition back to the earlier wake up when we can go back to our offices.  But even after only one full week working from home, I wasn’t sure about that as a long-term good idea.  I don’t want to miss my morning sprints all the time, and I do enjoy getting a morning shower when I can, so trying to work the timing around those two possibilities seemed like the best idea.  So for the second week of work from home, I tried a wake up time of 6am.

In theory, that would translate to 6am out of bed, physical therapy until about 6:40, and then my early morning writing sprint at 6:50am.  On days I wanted a morning shower, I might have to skip sprints, or start work a tiny bit late.  In practice, this has mostly worked for week two.  I’ve been rolling out of bed between 6am and 6:09am (one snooze of the alarm clock seems to be built into my routine already…).  I tried both physical therapy, sprint, then get ready, and physical therapy, get ready, then sprint.  I’m liking the latter best so far.  I’ve also tried out using my lunch hour for my shower instead of doing it before work.  It leads to a slightly longer lunch break if I also eat, but that’s worked out fairly well too.  I can always work a little past 5pm now that I’m not rushing to catch the bus home.

I’m still tweaking my routine and trying out different things, but I’m sure I’ll eventually settle into a routine that works for me.  Routines take time after all.  I’m writing these a little ahead so I can post them in advance and keep working through my thoughts by writing, so this is actually posting at the end of week three of working from home, and week one of mandated shelter-in-place, but I expect I’ll continue to keep you updated on what I’m thinking and feeling about all this.

I’m sure there are a lot of other things that I’m adjusting to that aren’t as obvious to me right now, so I will be revisiting this topic from time to time as I feel the need to write a little more to process all this.

Are you dealing with adjustments because of the virus?  What’s been the easiest thing to adjust to?  How about the hardest?  Or do you have any tips for the rest of us who are adjusting?  In these extraordinary times, it’s important for us all to remember to positively engage with one another is any ways that we can.

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