Thirty-Fine

This is fine.

Today I’m 39. I’ve been looking forward to being 39 – since three times itself is nine, and also, it just seemed like it’d be a pretty killer year. It has yet to live up to hype.

I’ve been feeling very fragile lately — extra anxious, losing patience really quickly with the kids, prone to frustration. I wasn’t really looking forward to having a birthday like this. But, if I’m very honest, each year is only what we make it, and I am who I am — this is all I get to work with, so I need to work with it best I can.

If nothing else, today is an opportunity to reflect and think about how I want thirty-nine to trend, so that when 40 comes around it’ll be the balm dot calm.

Here’s the direction I’d like to continue moving this year:

  • Hold my children on my lap, now, while they’ll still let me. Make sure they know they’re safe and loved, even when I’m not being lovable. Even when they’re not.
  • Continue to grow at work. I’m sure I’ll (keep) making mistakes, but moving forward is important and can’t wait for perfection.
  • Mentor more women, in either formal or informal situations.
  • Continue reshaping by changing my relationship to food (and wine) and increasing my normal daily movement (a bit challenging at the moment). I’m down 25 pounds of fat and up some amount of muscle. Looking forward to the increased freedom.
  • Stop being afraid of the basement. It holds up the house, we need it.
  • Continue being visible. It’s to me to state my views and correct misunderstandings clearly and openly — this mainly applies to work, where I have been working for about a year on representing myself transparently on an anonymous workplace blog we have. But I think it also matters here, on my own blog, and in social situations. People can’t agree with me if they don’t know what I think! And I can’t learn more if people can’t discuss nuance with me.

I’ve had a fairly nice day, and only spent a little bit choked with anxiety, and it’s far from over! It’s nearly 5pm here, but because of the shifted schedule I work now with COVID-19 and children home and all that, I don’t start work until 2 or 3, and don’t finish until 8 or 9. Then I do end-of-day childcare stuff. So my day doesn’t usually end until midnight or so. So it’s early! But here’s what’s happened so far:

I’m not sure what the next couple days and next couple weeks hold. I don’t know if we’ll go back to school this year (I don’t think so). I don’t know if daycare will open over the summer (I don’t think so). I don’t know when I’ll be able to balance my life to better prioritize work. But I do know that right now my family is prioritized, and while it’s exhausting, I will look back at the way 39 started, and I’ll be jealous of the time I have now.

Unregulated art

Every wall in our house has some drawing on it, either a marker dragged in a chubby fist as a certain small boy has walked up and down corridors and stair cases, or crayon more deliberately applied, or some combination of the two.

This is something that doesn’t bother me. We have gorgeous wallpaper in our house and it will definitely need to be replaced now. We have walls we will need to paint or repaint. We have moulding we will need to sand and refinish. I don’t see it as a destructive act, but an additive one. There’s a creativity that kids slowly grow out of, where everything is possible, and any surface is ripe for a doodle.

I noticed today that he has added to an older scribble with a technique he’s been very taken with lately, and has been experimenting with a lot. We’ve all tried it — holding a number of crayons and coloring with all of them at once. The happy violence of color is pretty reflective of his personality. He’s been doing it in books (coloring in black and white illustrations) and on coloring sheets. This is the first wall one I’ve found so far in the house. Found on the moulding between the hall and the living room.

A life of Grant

This worldwide pandemic is scary and weird, but we are privileged enough that we are doing ok. We are lucky because we both can continue to work from home (indeed, I always have, and I can give Bob some Slack pointers), our kids are smart and resourceful, and we are all healthy. We are around each other 24/7 which is, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, scary and weird. Kidding! Kind of. It’s wondrous in some ways; we really get to be around the very best people all the time. But it’s exhausting, too, because, as the adults, we are always tuned in, with no way to tune out. With the twins, this isn’t so much a problem, because they’re eight point five, and they have interests. Henry is putting together a very large Harry Potter Lego set. He also puts together his Kiwi Crates, and then makes other inventions (a lot are focused around the cats and incorporate liberal amounts of catnip). Eleanor creates hidey holes in her bedroom for reading in, primarily. Both of them enjoy their tablets (both playing games and watching videos). They get a lot more screentime than ever before (right now we’re watching “A Series of Unfortunate Events” on Netflix, because we are almost done listening to the series on Audible as our bedtime stories). They also have homework and Zoom calls with their classmates. On nice days (not today, it’s snowing again) we also all spend a lot of time outside, which we are fortunate to be able to do.

But Grant. Grant is a different breed, despite being literally the very same breed. Let me give you an example of Grant. He has a parent with him nearly all the time (sometimes he wanders between us and is out of contact with one or the other for a few minutes), and yet, he still can cause a shocking amount of mayhem in a frighteningly short amount of time. Everything that comes next happened in one day (yesterday). First, some background: Grant starts out sleeping in his own room, but inevitably makes his way upstairs to our room, and there upon spends his time kicking, hitting, and grinding his head into kidneys. We move him to a cot mattress on the floor, tuck him in, and go back to sleep in relative peace. The night that preceded the day I’m going to describe, Grant came up to our room, coughing. He laid down on his little cot mattress, but couldn’t stop coughing, and asked for a breathing treatment. So I took him to his room (where his nebulizer is) and gave him one. From the time we went downstairs until he fell asleep after the treatment, about an hour elapsed making it around 3:30am. I put him into his own bed, and went back to my room, and could not fall asleep the rest of the night. So that’s the background.

I was dozing in bed when Grant flopped on me, holding a cup that he had filled with chocolate syrup. He had been drinking fairly liberally from it.

I got him hustled downstairs to clean him up and dump out the syrup. Throughout the course of the day, he:

  • Threw a dumbbell at me
  • Picked up a cat upside down
  • Slammed a door on a cat’s tail
  • Created a mountain of cat food on the floor
  • Brushed the “teeth” of several of his toy cars
  • Took all the couch cushions off the couch (this one just gets under my skin)
  • Kicked Henry’s Legos
  • Laid down on Eleanor so she couldn’t get up (this one is pretty funny)
  • Laid down on several cats so they, too, couldn’t get up (this is not very funny)
  • Invaded several Business Style calls
  • Screamed for lunch, then refused to eat his lunch
  • Refused to poop on the potty (but did still poop)

And then it was time for Bob to take over for the afternoon. There was some quietness (from my perspective), but before I wrapped up my workday, Grant had visited me with an open jar of peanut butter under his arm, which he was eating out of with his fingers, and had apparently thrown my phone at the TV, and had broken the TV. So. That was all one day with him. Shortly after that, it was time for him to go to bed. He screamed at me and hit me because I wasn’t the one putting him to bed, and then he demanded two very grumpy kisses.

He slept very soundly last night. (As I type this, he has pushed my laptop out of my lap and has kicked my keyboard and laptop several times while telling me I’m Jesus Christ. He is why people say “I can’t even.”)

There’s a trope of the naughty little boy (Dennis the Menace, Calvin, Bart Simpson for some examples); little chaos agents who cause trouble that belies their tiny stature. And these boys aren’t bad, they just do bad things. There’s always some incident where their better nature surfaces, and we’re reminded that they are, in fact, small humans trying to make their way, to not be ignored or forgotten, with little bird hearts beating in their narrow chests. Last night, as I was walking Grant down from my room to dinner, after work, he said in his deliberate way “Mom, I am very sorry I broke your TV, very sorry mom.” It’s not a grand gesture by any means, but it’s enough.

WFH: the long haul

Imagine that after all this, you are part of the workforce that can continue to work from home. You’re in it for the long haul.

The biggest change will be around quarantine/lockdown procedures, so you will have a lot more flexibility with who you are around while you work. You may currently be all alone and desperately wish for company. You may be surrounded 24/7, and desperately wish for solitude. There will come a day when you can fish your wish! Tip 1: Experiment with your environment. Try out working from coffee shops, the library, local co-working spaces, or just a different room in your home that is now magically unoccupied. You may love the sound of other people in the next room, but not having to deal with actual humans. Your aural environment definitely matters. Some sounds snap you into work mode, and other sounds rip you right back out. Find the right sounds, and invest in good equipment — I like Sennheiser MOMENTUM over ear wireless, BOSE Q25 over ear (mine are wired, but I’d invest in wireless if I were doing it again), and Mifo wireless earbuds.. Think, too, about how penned-in you like to be. Does working outside or next to a big sunny window seriously appeal to you? Put your desk in that spot. Do you do your best work when you are in a cave and have no distractions? Face a corner and pull the blinds. The people you are around, the things you can hear and the things you can see are all major inputs while you’re working. Think carefully about them and change the things that don’t work.

An amazing and wondrous thing about online work is that it’s accessible, in the sense that most of these tools have a desktop app, an iPhone app, and Android app, maybe Linux, and certainly a website as well. Tip 2: Set boundaries. You are in the marathon now. You signed up for a fun run, it turned into a 10k right around March 22nd, but now you’re doing it for realsies. Let’s go the full 26point2. You are never going to get there if you overtrain and never take a rest day. Take Slack and Zoom off your phone. Set appropriate expectations with the people who rely on you and who you work with most. If you say “I’m heading out! 👋🏻” at 5pm (local time), don’t come back unless there’s an emergency, or you have a prior commitment. Don’t read all the Slack channels in realtime. It’s really easy to be seduced by 24/7 always on culture. Your regular life will suffer for it. Set a clear start time and a clear end time, and stick to it.

When you’re communicating remotely, especially if you’re a lead, there’s a temptation to use all the tools and conference it up. Tip 3: Find the sweet spot between face-to-face communication (Zoom), realtime async communication (Slack), and permanent archive communication (we use P2). Not everything needs to be a meeting. Getting face time with people can be incredibly valuable, especially if that’s what you’re used to. But it can also be very tiring — not to mention inefficient — to expect people to hop on a video call (or even just a voice call) all day. Whether you share longer-form ideas in a shared Google Drive, or you start using some private WordPress blogs to post forum-style, find someplace where you can share those longer ideas and rip apart and rebuild ideas together, apart. Save your meetings for personal catch-up and for making decisions, not debate. Over-communicate in all things, but give everyone else the choice of how and when to engage with your communication.

Some of us need a lot of structure and working from home can seem too… loose. Others of us thrive on spontaneity, and working from home is perfect for finding the flow. Working from home successfully is like riding a bike every single day. You need to tweak, tighten, loosen, and figure out the ride of your bike to make it work. Tip 4: Establish your own work rituals (either alone or with your team) that make your days build into successful weeks, and your weeks to move purposefully towards established goals. Whether it’s listening to music, sitting down at a precise time, breaking for a tea break at exactly 11:04 am, or getting outside for a jog every afternoon, the little rituals you develop around your work make your work more effortless. When a ritual doesn’t work for you any longer, fiddle. Help yourself to maintain rituals — if you must have a steady supply of something (yarn to twist around your fingers while you think, an apple to chew through while writing your next day’s to-do list, a fully-charged headset, etc), make sure you plan ahead so your day doesn’t get snagged on a small upset. Smooth your own path, purposefully.

One final tip: You can start all of these now. Don’t wait for a perfect future state — it doesn’t exist. Start creating your strong processes, loosely held. You may not be able to go work in a coffee shop at the moment, but you can still experiment with the environment available to you, even if it’s just making sure your toddler has easy access to YouTube Kids, and working from the other end of the couch. You can take ownership of tiny parts of your workday, and make them start working better for you. Good luck, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.