I recall with some resentment the days when Xbox Live was getting under way, and the ability to play Halo against other players around the world became a real thing. It seemed like magic. Until, that is, I actually tried it. I wasn't very good at it, and the experience consisted mostly of me getting my ass kicked while some kid stood over my dead body and informed me that I sucked. And mind you, that's with the player matching algorithm putting me in a game with others who similarly sucked!
Some years later, I remember doing it a few times with my friend Mike in Chicago, doing team-based campaign missions, and that was a little more fun. I never really pursued it much after that, especially after we both procreated.
Fast forward to a few years ago, when Simon was around 8. We introduced him to Portal, because I figured that the physics and puzzles would be interesting to him. I was somewhat concerned about his ability to play, because controlling a first-person game takes some getting used to, and his dexterity wasn't great to begin with. But he figured it out, and before you knew it, he was owning the game. It ended with tears because he felt bad for the gun turret robots that were trying to kill him since they would be alone as his character made it outside.
Late last year, I decided to play through the Halo single-player games again, because I enjoyed the stories and I felt it was worth playing again. Simon seemed to enjoy watching me blow up aliens, so at some point I figured, what the heck, let's try some multi-player.
He was pretty bad at it at first, but it was different because speed and decisive action wasn't a part of Portal. I did not make it easy for him. The more he did it, the more kills he got, and the games stopped being blow-outs. Finally, a few weeks ago, he beat me for the first time, and it was a big deal for him. Now he wins about 1 in 4 times, and while he still gets frustrated at times (as he does with everything else in life... we haven't cracked that nut yet), I can see him getting better. He's thinking in tactical ways. He's getting very precise in his movement, able to move around me while still keeping his guns targeted on me. I haven't really coached him, he's just figuring it out.
Simon doesn't like to be challenged. But in this case, he's been persistent and getting there. I wish we could bottle this up and apply it to reading comprehension.
The family that kills each other, stays together. Metaphorically, of course.
Things generally feel out of control for, well, most everyone right now. That hardly comes as a surprise. There are levels of that, certainly, given your relative security in the world, but everyone's mental health is going to be challenged to some degree.
We all look for ways to try to bring control and order where we don't have it. Diana typically does it by cleaning and reorganizing the pantry. I remember when I was dealing with layoffs and divorce, I tried to assert control by getting into body piercing and weight loss. These days it's making a radio show, long showers and Inkbox. Simon is trying to build things with Lego, but gets frustrated because he thinks of it in a largely abstract way instead of imitating the real world.
I've been through some particularly difficult stretches, unable to find work in 2001 and 2009, but this feels different. Living in a place that depends on the tourist economy, I worry about the massive number of people not working, as well as the inevitable effects on our state's tax revenue and services. It's probably going to last longer than anything we've encountered before.
As for me, I'm through all the stages of grief over not being able to do whatever I want, and at this point I'm at acceptance that things are the way they are, for however long it's going to take. No one wants this to go on, but the natural world is going to have its way with us regardless of what politicians think is the right thing to do next. It looks like they'll make it worse before it gets better. All I can do is try to take care of myself and my family, do the best I can at work and help where I can.
Remember how at some point in the midst of my life reboot (moving/new marriage/parenthood) I realized that what I really wanted to do was experience things instead of acquire stuff? It was a big shift in thinking compared to my 20's and early 30's when I saved nothing and bought junk on credit. And certainly with all of the moving we did from 2009 to 2017 (six times), having stuff was a burden. But then Covid-19.
Obviously, I'm not doing stuff. In the simple scope, I don't go out for lunch, whether it's to Tijuana Flats or Epcot. But I'm also not going to the beach, or going for a weekend cruise, or rolling down to my in-laws', or returning to the Midwest for roller coasters. So basically, all of the things that make for a happier life, I can't do. Well, none of us can, but I don't presume the same things make everyone happy.
If for a moment, I wanted to buy "stuff" to make me happy, there are a ton of things that would get in the way. First, I need to have a job. While I'm fortunate enough to have one, the world seems too unpredictable to be sure that will be the case in the future. So even if you have income, you may be reluctant to spend money. This is why the federal relief money going to employed people last week strikes me as strange, because I can assure you that all we were ever going to do was save it. And finally, when stores are closed, assuming that some people still buy things at physical retail, you can't shop if you want to. I track every cent of what we spend, and our discretionary spending is about 10% of what it is in normal times.
All this makes for a pretty serious detriment to the economy, and simply "opening" it doesn't fix it. People aren't going to travel, and they'll be suspect of everyone they encounter until we have effective treatments and vaccines. It's a painful reality for places like Orlando.
I hope that if you can find a way to contribute, you'll donate to food charities, local and global, as a serious hunger issue is developing to epic scale. It's not that food production is at risk, it's that the logistics in distributing the food, combined with massive unemployment, mean a lot of people simply can't get food. If we can't grease the economic engine, hopefully we can at least help people who can't eat.
I can't tell you the last time I wore pants. Or socks. I mean, I do live in Florida where shorts are appropriate, but sometimes you wear pants when you leave the house. Diana determined that she hasn't wore makeup or her "work nose ring" in about 40 days. There are all these layers of social contracts that just don't apply at the moment. That's weird.
There aren't a lot of pants in our immediate future.
What a great and terrible day. It feels like there's no middle ground anymore. Everything is amazing or horrible.
Simon and Diana didn't have a perfect day at "school," but they finished pretty early today, around 2, his rash is slightly better, and the kid even ate chicken for dinner. There was barely any shouting today!
For me, I woke up rested for a change, and work was really productive. My stakeholders are willing to use the project management system I've given them, my engineers seem to be on the same page as me, my boss is taking on things outside of my scope, and I feel like there's forward momentum with a team I barely know.
On the other hand, a long-time acquaintance is going to be on a ventilator is and is in pretty bad shape, infected with COVID-19 and pneumonia. The degrees of separation are now zero, and I don't want him to be a stat in the losses column. Meanwhile, the psychic weight of coworkers living in New York City, where they don't have the benefit of sprawling suburbs and McMansions, is I think taking a toll. Some were able to get out of the city, most were not. It's a bad scene.
The economic toll of non-work in our local economy is becoming apparent. Today I checked in with my hairstylist and a cast member that I've kind of vaguely kept in touch with after she was amazing to Simon a few years ago. It's not fair that they should suffer from all this.
I know a lot of people got a direct deposit hit from the feds today, which hopefully brightened some days. That's a weird thing for people who are still working, because it's not like they can go out and spend money when everything is closed and they can't travel. That's not going to stimulate the economy.
The politics are getting more absurd. The federal response has been an epic failure, and some people who defend the president are becoming more entrenched. On the plus side, those not joining the cult of personality have recognized that party affiliation is not indicative of ability to lead, as governors of both parties have shown extraordinary leadership, regardless of their normal policy positions.
We had a nice evening where we were able to relax on the patio after a little thunderstorm and vastly cooler temperatures (we've had near-record highs, again). I made a cocktail for dinner and sipped it.
These are such weird times.
It's hard to believe that I made it two weeks since my last brain dump of this nature. This one is definitely for me and my desire to record my history, because it's gross and nobody wants to hear this. There is some optimism at the end though.
Sleeping at Puzzoni HQ has been challenging for the last few weeks, in part because of the insomnia, but also because of Simon's chapped ass. I mean, literally, it's a bloody mess. He started taking a supplement that I guess was suggested by his developmental doctor, and as best as we can tell from a visit to his regular doctor's office yesterday, that supplement is the source for a raging itch that quickly got out of control. It might be shellfish derived omega-3's in the supplement. He's now taking some nuclear drug four times a day while we cover him in an ointment to treat it.
I hated the idea of him having to go to a doctor's office, though fortunately no one was there other than staff, and Diana's already made us all masks to help. I feel like a dick because I had largely blown off the scratching as the latest in a long string of ticks and stims that he has had over the years (he picked his arms for a long time, and his fingers and heels are still frequently in bandages). But this was a bona fide allergic reaction, and he couldn't help it.
All this to say that he's been wandering into our room several times a night to complain that he can't sleep, which of course we can't do anything about. Last night he finally slept through the night, but while Diana has been having difficulty regulating her body temperature, I was up obsessing about our outside world exposure clock being reset, thoughts about an acquaintance that's infected, and how I can solve a programming problem in one of my personal projects (that was "for fun").
I also realized that, potentially, my pillows suck. Like a mattress, I think they just kind of get bad over time and you don't realize it. Whatever it is, every video call I had today I didn't recognize the tired person in front of my camera.
Home schooling is in week three now, and this one isn't going well. Diana does get some wins now and then, but it's so hard to concentrate on those when the losses are so hard. Simon still suffers from two fundamental issues: He wants to skip to the answers and not do the work, and he believes he has to get everything right first try. You can imagine how that goes.
We've been flirting with record highs again, so I haven't felt like going outside. I haven't been feeling like doing much of anything after work, probably because selfishly I'm having a self-pity party about not knowing when I can at least go to the beach or something. Then I see coworkers holed-up in a midtown one-bedroom and feel bad for what I feel, which my therapist reminds me is not constructive.
But work is fun, and it's nice to dive into a new puzzle and figure out how you can help. Working for a somewhat bigger company also means that you're constantly meeting new people, though it's a bummer that it will probably be a long time before I meet them in person. The company is based in Manhattan, but my team is mostly everywhere else, coast to coast.
My radio show is still running in Alaska.
First off, you can stream SiriusXM stations for free right now through May 15. You should try it.
I loved radio. I mean, I loved it so much that I wanted to be on it. While I achieved that goal in short order (and subsequently found out it was a terrible job in a crumbling industry), that love affair started when I was a kid. My step-dad received a radio Walkman as a gift, I think when I was 10 or 11. I was sick with the flu or something, and couldn't sleep, so he let me use it one night to hopefully get me there. With a fresh pair of AA batteries, I found the top 40 station in Cleveland, and it blew my mind. When the voice stopped talking, the music played in glorious stereo. I vividly remember Pat Benatar's "We Belong," because of the stereo-ness of it. I think Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" was another one I heard.
Shortly thereafter, I had a clock radio, and would listen for hours, hoping to hear whatever it was I was excited to hear. I started using the sleep button to listen for an hour as I fell asleep. I would do this for years, eventually migrating to CD's at bed time in college, but radio seemed like magic still. In college and at the radio stations where I worked, I'd anxiously get the latest issue of Radio & Records to see what was charting, especially on the modern rock chart. As bland as radio started to get by then, settling mostly on country and adult contemporary formats, there was a wonderful art to curating music and taste-making. I felt like the Cleveland alt-rock station at the time, 107.9-The End, was particularly good at it. They created an image that wasn't afraid of popular things, but also not shy about that song or band that wasn't on anyone's radar. It was fantastic.
By the mid-oughts, I had largely given up on terrestrial radio. But in early 2010, I retied my last aging Toyota Corolla and got a Prius, which was equipped with a satellite radio. That radio had a three-month trial to the recently merged Sirius and XM radio services, and it took all of one week of commuting between Issaquah and Redmond, Washington, before I was hooked. AltNation and Lithium became my favorite channels, but it was great to have access to literally every little genre. The service doesn't have to compete with other formats, it simply serves them all.
I've been a customer ever since. Annoyingly, you've had to call them up and threaten to cancel every six months to a year, at which time they give you the best deal available. It's a stupid business practice, but I think it's changing. This time, I just popped a chat window on their web site, and they gave me the best deal, currently $5/month plus fees and taxes, for a year.
"But Jeff, when are you in your car?" Good question. The car I drive doesn't even have a satellite radio. But the streaming service became part of the package last year, and it works on the web in a browser, on phone apps and on Amazon and Google speakers. I listen to it nearly every day.
So you're probably like, "Yeah, but I just use some other streaming service." Yeah, I've tried those, but all of the algorithmic "station" things don't really work. My car has Slacker, and it blows. Human curated radio is still pretty great, both as a way to listen to what you're comfortable with, and as a discovery means. They also have the news and talk stuff, if that's your thing, and lots of stuff on demand, like weekly countdowns and in-studio performances. There's a human energy to radio even now that I adore, and it's commercial free.
Outside of public radio and colleges, terrestrial radio still blows, and stopped being local years ago. Satellite radio, even when it's streaming, can't be local, but it's pretty great. You can't even buy a Starbucks coffee for $5, so this is worth it. I'm worried about the service because people are not driving much these days, which is evident in how much they're pushing people to use the app to listen.
Give it a shot. I think you'll like it. It's free for another month. When that's over, consider subscribing. It's worth it.
One of the most frustrating things about the pandemic is that it's hard to help when you can't leave the house. I mean, you can certainly donate money if you have it to various charities, or even "sponsor" someone out of work in some way, but it's not like you can go out and help build a house or stuff envelopes in an office or whatever. (Well, maybe you can, but it depends on how much risk you can take on.)
This weekend, I helped a friend by doing some software training, which felt especially good since Orlando Code Camp was cancelled this year. Diana is sewing masks for family members, but I suspect if she gets proficient, it'll be a wider group. We've made adjustments in our Amazon Smile recipients. At work we can actually expense food orders from our customers (they're restaurants, we do their online ordering), including tips and delivery. And heck, two people and some folks in Alaska have a slightly brighter day from my radio show. If you don't get too caught up in scope, you can find a lot of things to do that help people out. Little things matter.
The degrees of separation between you and people out of work, or sick, and maybe dying, likely shrunk pretty rapidly in just the last week or two. And with the reality setting in that it's not going to go away for a very long time, like me, you may feel a certain sense of helplessness. Helping each other out, even virtually, sure helps the soul.
One of my former coworkers from more than a decade ago recently posted a tribute of sorts to our chief architect at that job. He helped to cultivate a culture that is extremely rare in software development, where there was a shared desire for continuous improvement, close collaboration and engagement with the business and just doing the best work we could. More than a decade after that company imploded, I've never been a part of anything quite like it.
Of course, the other side of that is that the non-technical leadership made some serious errors that led to the death of the company, which is pretty frustrating because it was a bona fide business model that should have endured. It's one of the first times in my career that I experienced a huge reversal in respect for the leadership. I've seen that disappointment a number of times since, and it weighs heavy on me to never be "that guy" in the roles that I've since accepted.
Countless books have been written about effective leadership, both from third-party perspectives and those that are largely autobiographical. It's really hard to distill what makes effective leaders down to a few things, and I tend to take little bits and pieces from each of those that I admire.
In politics, I find that leadership measurement doesn't fit the conventional definitions either. While my political alignment is all over the place to an extent, it doesn't align well with party. For example, I think Bernie Sanders' call for universal healthcare is absolutely the moral and correct outcome that we should pursue. But he's a terrible leader and an inflexible ideologue that would never be able to bridge the gap with those who disagree with him. You can't do so when you're declaring war on a segment of the population that is not itself the problem as much as it is the system. Conversely, I would categorize Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio to have some of the worst policy positions in the history of the state (especially on reproductive health rights), but he's currently demonstrating in a crisis how to lead by listening to experts around him. And don't even get me started about a leader that thinks the ratings for his press conferences are a measure of success.
My own playbook is pretty small. First, surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and compliment you with experience that you don't have. Second, enable those people to create your desired outcomes, and hold them accountable to those outcomes. Third, respect, value and appreciate the people who accept that accountability, without coddling them. And finally, accept that you have blind spots, and don't reject the reality of those just because they make you uncomfortable.
Leading is hard. I'm sure some people have a natural instinct to do it, but it's not easy. I often wonder, what percentage can I get right? Am I failing when some people can't come along, or is it on them? Am I better at it than I was a year ago?
Back in my volleyball coaching days, I learned a very important lesson, and it informs my view on human nature. If you can trust a group of people to take what you've given them, and encourage them to take ownership in it, most of the time, they will deliver for you. I had a series of teams, teenage girls, where I gave them a framework for success. They weren't the tallest or most talented kids, but I gave them a system to own, and they really, really did well with it. Sure, I did have one group that wasn't having it, and it took me a long time to realize that it wasn't my fault. You can lead a horse to water, as they say. But most of the time, leadership works when you empower and get out of the way.
I've not felt good about my overall mental health this year. There are a ton of underlying reasons for that, few of which I want to talk about online. Then there's a public health crisis that you've probably heard about, which doesn't help. That said, I've got reasons to believe it's turning around.
I finally went back to my therapist for the first time since August, which is way too long. Part of the reason I backed off is because we were sending Simon to his therapist weekly for awhile, then every other week, and in both cases that's not covered by insurance. We were about ready to suspend his because we weren't confident that it was effective, and then they stopped seeing people anyway. Mine will do it remote, which is helpful.
The upside of my visit was that my therapist feels that I've been reasonably effective at using my set of tools to handle chaos. She also said that I still have to better understand when I'm giving more than I'm getting from the world (professionally, personally, etc.), because I often don't ask for what I need, and I definitely don't initiate "taking" more for myself. For example, I have a friend in DC, and it's perfectly acceptable for me to leave my darling family at home and go visit him, but I don't. I generally don't prioritize self-care or things just for me, although we're working through why that is.
We also had a good conversation about work. She suggested that jobs, especially in technology, have a lot in common with personal relationships. As she put it, they're good for "a reason, a season or for life" (though jobs are never really "for life"). Sometimes you take a job because you need to eat. Sometimes you stay in one because there's a great opportunity to exercise or develop certain skills. But other times, the situation isn't right, and you hang out because of some sense that it builds character. It's like being in an abusive relationship and feeling like you can change the other person. Self-aware and deliberate as I try to be about career development, I don't always see it. I still struggle to find that place on the pendulum between being all-in and treating work as "just a job." There's a relationship similarity there as well, where you define some portion of your self-worth by the quality of the engagement. For the last six years or so, I've leaned on the side of all-in, and it takes a toll. Now as I start again, I have to work to right-size how much of my self-worth I associate with work.
I've been struggling with anxiety in ways that I've never experienced. Part of it is that I've generally been able to reset by getting away from the routine. For me, that's going out to lunch, going to the beach, a theme park, or maybe escaping on a weekend cruise a few times a year. Obviously I can't do any of those things right now, and biking to the edges of the neighborhood doesn't cut it. On top of that, the combination of a new job, seeing Diana take on the role of teacher, and knowing that there's this thing out there that could kill my often respiratory-compromised wife, is a bit much to roll with. None of us are sleeping well here at HQ, and it's taking a toll.
I feel particularly bad for some of my coworkers living in NYC because they just don't have room to move around. Here, at least we can get out into the neighborhood and still avoid people. Good luck doing that if you live in Manhattan, where population density can be 70k people per square mile. Seeing this all through their lens gives you a different perspective.
Overall, my mental health feels better now than it did two weeks ago. I'm finding more consistent rhythms in the day, listening more to music and finding outlets for creative energy. And while no day is perfect, we have some good parenting days and it's not all bad. As I said, we've had to roll with quite a few challenges lately, some of them external, and so some of the weight comes from the sheer volume of stuff. The volume is a little lower, and that helps.
Take care of your minds, y'all.
The isolation of the pandemic has been rough probably for everyone, even if they've completely avoided sickness. But something extraordinary has happened because of it. People are going to great lengths to be creative, and make art. Certainly famous people are doing it, but so is seemingly everyone else. It's the phenomenon that I often quote Jack White with illustrating (in the documentary It Might Get Loud), that constraints can in fact force a great deal of creativity.
I'm not shy about saying that so much of what's on the Internet, produced by amateurs, is terrible. But people are trying harder, and the good stuff is rising to the top. Best of all, there are more cats, dogs and toddlers. Heck, even the pros, especially the late night hosts, are figuring out how to wing it from home, which is pretty cool.
The Broadway community has been doing some really great stuff. Caissie Levy did this great acoustic version of "Let It Go" (she's the definitive Elsa, by the way, and I'll stand by that having seen her do it). The original cast of Hamilton got together to perform for a little girl who was supposed to see the touring show, in the weirdest way on a "show" that Jack Ryan, John Krasinski is doing. (Also, he's married to Emily Blunt? I didn't know that.) Ben Platt and Dear Evan Hansen-folk did something similar for "You Will Be Found." And that all was just in the last week. Broadway performers and their crews are not rich (not most of them, anyway), and much like our theme park workers here, they're hurting with all of the theaters shut down. I give them a lot of credit for finding ways to do a show anyway.
But even here in the suburbs, sidewalk chalk drawing has become a prominent way to communicate with your neighbors. One of our neighbors made wooden "eggs" for kids to decorate. And for the kids not going to school, they're doing stuff from home as part of their classwork.
Art, and especially music, is something I find myself going deep into lately, in ways I haven't in years. It's what I need to mediate and relax. Seeing live music, and musical theater, are things that bring me great peace, and not having that access is hard. But I'm hitting the archives in ways that I haven't in a long time. I can't play anything or sing, and by extension can't write music, and maybe that's why I started a radio show (it's huge in Alaska!).
It's hard knowing all of the people we planned to see this summer, like friends and family in Seattle, or hosting friends from Norway, won't happen. My optimist side, which has taken a beating, is trying to view this all as an opportunity to make things. It seems like I'm not alone.
We've been having fun with fake tattoos from Inkbox. They have a ton of fun designs, and they last about a week and a half, depending on the "traffic" to your skin in that spot and whether or not it's generally moisturized. You can also upload custom designs. The newer ones have some pretty good shading, too. I totally loved the spaceman. I did a custom one with a lyric from the song "Sound" by the band James, one of my favorite songs of all time. We also created some anchors with Mickey ears that would be fun for our next cruise, but that's obviously on hold.
Yeah, it's probably a little midlife crisis-ish, but I'd like to get a real tattoo. When I was younger I was too non-committal about such things, but meh, at this point in life it doesn't really feel like there's anything at stake. Diana got her first tattoo at the age of 30 (of a cat, natch), and she'd like to get another one too. I can't really describe the motivation or intent. Even after seeing the Jeff Goldblum episode about it, I'm not sure what the intent is. I've been around tattoos for my entire adult life, as my first wife Stephanie had her first before we met.
For a long time I've been fascinated with the endless symbolism associated with a navigation compass rose, and figured some artistic take on that would be a starting point for me. In recent years I've also loved the mandala style of design, and I'd love to see some combination of the two, the stark angles against the curves. Diana has some ideas to combine the quilting "feathers" pattern with other shapes, so that's where her interest is. We found a guy here in the area that does some pretty amazing line work, which is what we're looking for. He's generally booked months out, but as you would expect, had to stop. He does text really well, too, and I wouldn't rule that out. Some day, we'll be able to get real.
I've decided that I need to brain dump now and then, as the pandemic works itself out. I'm experiencing epic new levels of anxiety, as I'm sure most people are, but not everything I think about can be distilled into a witty blog post. And what I write, I can at least temporarily retire, so that should help with sleep. Also, I want to have a record of this, so I can have a laugh or cry about it at some future date. So here's the first of such brain dumps.
One of the hardest things for me as a parent is to remember that the things that cause your child tears really are the worst things ever for them. That's why the old cliche thing we used to hear about eating your dinner because kids are starving in Africa was a pretty pointless thing to say. We had no context at that age. And boy, layer on autism in that equation, that introduces all kinds of challenges. The point is, your kid's reality is what's real for them.
I'm often astounded at the way that adults treat each other, in the context of our individual realities. I'm not debating whether or not something is objective fact or not (don't even get me started), but rather that our lives can be difficult, and everyone has something. I'm not sure why people are so certain that anyone does not have something. Sure, it's human nature to measure people up and draw some judgmental conclusions, but it doesn't make it OK. I feel like everyone is broken in some way, and to various degrees. Even if someone is by every socioeconomic measurement "privileged," it hardly means that their life is free of pain.
What's worse is this horrible and toxic call-out culture in social media. People really love those virtual high-fives and likes when they tear someone down for not being empathetic or woke enough. I'm not sure why anyone thinks they're changing minds, but they seem to feed off of their righteous tear-downs. As it is, social media representations of people are at best heavily filtered, and at worse completely fictional. You don't know the person on the other side of the screen. Just back off when someone decides to share a little pain or anxiety. You're not the score keeper or inventory master for all of the karma in the universe.
You're going to be feeling a lot of anxiety, anger, sadness and God knows what else the next few months. You may even feel bad that you feel bad, but you need to stop that nonsense right now. Every therapist will tell you that it's inappropriate to measure your pain against someone else's. Therapists will also tell you to avoid relationships with people who attempt to invalidate your feelings, so don't spoil that relationship with yourself. What you feel is as real as it can be, and measuring it against someone else's feelings will not enable you to process them.
It's OK to be a mess. Express it as you will. You don't have to feel bad about it.