Bearing Up

These deranged times have, among many other things, been an object lesson in powerlessness. So many things we can’t control. So many policy decisions – directly impacting our daily lives, and our safety – entirely out of our hands. So much trauma. So much anxiety. Normal life, whatever that looked like, has been off the table for far too long already, and it’s not coming back anytime soon. Loves ones have been out of reach, and will continue to be for who knows how long?

Covid laughs at plans. It scoffs at calendar entries, sneers at plane tickets, and wreaks havoc on relationships and mental health. It is more than we can reasonably expect to bear, yet bear it we must. And that’s without even considering the normal dramas of life that don’t take pity on us, just because there’s a pandemic.

Years ago I went to a talk by Bob Brown where I was struck by his central message: We can’t achieve anything from a position of pessimism. To make progress, to fix things, to get anything done, we must have hope. Optimism can change the world, pessimism can only mourn its passing.

Yet optimism is in desperately short supply right now. Everywhere we look, there is a barrage of relentless devastation. Bushfires. Attempted Coups. Climate Change. Conspiracy theorists. People who vote for people who are MANIFESTLY incapable of the jobs they are being voted into (not an exclusively American phenomenon, I have to say). Covid numbers out of control. Joblessness and homelessness on the rise. Domestic violence. Continued unconscionable cruelty to refugees whose only crime was to ask us for help.

The urge to go back to bed, pull the covers over ourselves, and sing Lily Allen’s Fuck You as loudly as possible is overwhelming on even the best days.

And some days staying in bed is, indeed, the best we can do. But we must find hope. And that takes work – right when more work feels like the last thing we have the energy for. Fortunately, it’s work that pays immediate dividends. This is my list of concrete actions I take to find hope. Some days they work well. Some days I still struggle. Some days I can’t even bring myself to do them. But they help.

  1. Virtual Co-working. I have a virtual co-working video chat that I keep open when I’m working alone in my office. I share it with a few social media groups I am part of. Some days no-one shows up, sometimes lots of people do. There have been some wonderful conversations, some surprising connections formed, and some fabulous reconnections. Some days I haven’t got the energy to do it, though it doesn’t take much, but it’s always worth pushing through that feeling and firing up the chat.
  2. Make more phone calls. This one is weirdly hard these days – why call, when we can text, email, or message? It’s so personal! But that’s exactly why we should do it. Because it’s more personal. Because it’s easier to share your feelings when you can hear someone’s voice, and feel like you’re sharing a space. Private video chats are great, too, but need more setup. Phone calls can be spontaneous. I don’t do this enough, but I’m working on it!
  3. Stop reading/watching the news. It seems to be the media’s role, these days, to make people as upset as possible. To insist that horrifying and portentous things are afoot, whether they are or not. Stop reading it. Check the headlines once per day if you must, but stop doom scrolling and obsessively refreshing. You will still hear about important things. I find that the less I read the news, the less I get caught up in the hysteria of it. “But, it was a funny thing: every day something happened that was important enough to be on the front page of the newspaper. She’d never bought it and seen a little sign that said ‘Not much happened yesterday, sorry about that’.” Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals.
  4. Curate your social media. Mute, block, or otherwise avoid the negativity. On Twitter I have made a list I call “Priorities”, and I read that list instead of my full feed. The only people on that list are people who share mostly positive things, and people I am close to whose tweets I definitely want to see. And “Unsolicited Dik-diks”, “raccoon every hour”, and other cute animal feeds. Sometimes even my Priorities list has too many people sharing trauma, in which case I avoid twitter for a while. On Facebook I have designated a small handful of people “see first”, and those are, again, people I trust with my mental health. I often don’t read the rest of it at all.
  5. Read or watch positive, uplifting things. My reading this year has largely been Young Adult fiction, cheerful romance, and optimistic non fiction such as Rutger Bregman’s “Humankind: A hopeful history.” On TV we’re currently enjoying Lucifer as a family – because it mostly leaves us entertained and amused, rather than demoralised and traumatised. This is no time for Buffy: Season 3, or anything emotionally challenging.
  6. Pat a (consenting) furry animal. Of course, if your furry animal of choice is a cat, consent may be withdrawn unexpectedly at any time, so keep your wits about you. But engaging with animals is emotionally rewarding and clinically proven to alleviate stress.
  7. Get out into nature. Whether it’s a spot of light gardening, a bushwalk, or staring out to sea, engaging with nature is another proven way of relieving stress and seeing the upside of life.

These are some of the things that work for me. I want to change the world, and to do that I have to be able to lift my head and see the horizon. Some days my head is heavy, so I need a little help. What do you do to lift yourself up?

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Covid Abnormal

This evening my husband was playing with our cat, Emmie, and a ping pong ball, when he accidentally shifted the rug she was standing on. Suddenly Emmie didn’t care about the ping pong ball anymore, but she was desperately concerned about the rug’s newfound ability to move.

Half an hour later, she is still regarding the rug with intense suspicion, and looking for the invisible demon that tried to pull her world out from under her.

Em, kiddo, I know how you feel. Invisible demons are all the rage these days.

Melbourne is, nominally, back to nearly normal. We are cautious, still wearing masks in supermarkets, shopping centres, health clinics and the like. But there is a certain amount of surreptitious hugging. Some cautious venturing out to dinner in restaurants. Even the odd party. My daughter and I actually took a road trip to Sydney a couple of weeks ago and stayed with friends. It was weird though. We were cautious. Anxious, even. Taking public transport was unnerving, as few people in Sydney wore masks – public exhortations to do the right thing are clearly not very effective – and we were constantly alert to risk. Some close friends were wisely avoiding hugging, which was understandable, but intensely painful at the same time.

But, as NSW is currently showing us with painful clarity, this thing isn’t over. Even once a vaccine hits our shores it will be months, if not years, before there is enough vaccine to innoculate everyone. And applied over an entire population, the initial efficacy (demonstrated over small test groups) might not be quite as good as we’d like it to be. I don’t think covid19 is going away anytime soon.

Our world has changed. We now know how many people can, in fact, work from home effectively, having been told by their bosses for years that they couldn’t be trusted. And we know how many can’t, with children climbing over them, no privacy for meetings, insufficient internet, and a desperate lack of social contact.

But we are also facing the aftermath (and ongoing impact) of a year that has gleefully stomped on all of our plans and expectations, trashed our calendars, and deprived many of us of the physical and emotional support we need to sustain sanity, if not life.

Even if we could snap back to normal tomorrow, covid19 has carved itself deep into our lives. We have no idea what the world will look like when we come out the other side. We have no clear picture of the damage that has been done.

As for me, I am shattered. Exhausted from an emotionally intense year that took far more than it gave, I am several hundred thousand hugs short of coping right now. I am pining for loved ones interstate and overseas. I crave all of the hugs, kisses, and casual physical affection that elbow bumping and zoom calls simply cannot replace. I need the long slow lunches, the quiet walks, the post conference dinners that go on forever. I need the privacy to have intensely personal conversations. I need the chance to rebuild my emotional reserves, my courage, and my confidence.

Some places are trending towards normal. Some places are going into new lockdowns and watching rising case numbers eroding their lifestyle and threatening their loved ones. But wherever you are, life has changed, and we have lost so much.

I am ending 2020 hanging in there, rather like a wind chime – there are too many pieces and they scream a lot whenever anything happens.

We’re lucky, here in Melbourne, because the lockdown worked. But there’s no certainty we’ll still be case free next month, next week, or even tomorrow, and even if we are, there’s trauma we can’t see. On our way to Sydney we drove through forests that were so badly burned in the fires last summer that they are not regenerating. Like those fires, covid19 is doing damage we can see, but also a lot of damage we don’t yet know about.

We have to hold on to each other, to look out for each other, to make sure we can regenerate.

It isn’t over til the vaccine sings

Melbourne is emerging from lockdown.


We’re a little hesitant. Blinking in the fierce glare of even an overcast day. Feeling our way forward. Afraid of a sickening return to crisis. Afraid we don’t know how to socialise anymore. Afraid of not being able to hug. Afraid of hugging. Afraid of not seeing enough people. Afraid of seeing too many people. Afraid of forgetting our masks, or hand sanitiser.

That’s been the leitmotif of 2020, really. Fear.

And while we thought the theme song of lockdown was “I Want to Break Free,” it turns out it was actually “Wild World.”

But if you wanna leave, take good care
I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear (that still fit you)
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there

Mostly “Wild World”, Cat Stevens.

It’s particularly hard to get by just upon a smile when your smile is permanently hidden behind a mask.

I’ve been a bit sad this week, and it seems to have surprised some people. “It’s over, mate!” “Aren’t you happy now?” “Things are better! Buck up!”

And while I appreciate the need to live in the moment, to revel in the things we can do now in Melbourne that we couldn’t do before – visit each other at home, dine out in cafes and restaurants, go shopping for Christmas presents, travel a little further – I think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge that things are still tough.

Things are still scary. When will the next outbreak be? Are my loved ones safe? Is a vaccine even possible? Have I touched the wrong thing? Have I used enough hand sanitiser? Did that person cough near me???

Things are still constrained. No hugging. Masks on at all times, even in other people’s houses. No kissing. No touch. One visit per household per day. Long, long days working from home, seeing others by video call, if at all. No visits to or from loved ones interstate or overseas. No travel outside our 25km radius.

Throw in some big picture fear about things like the outcome of the US election, the parlous state of our own politics, climate change, our unconscionable treatment of refugees, and our callous disregard for the fate of the poor and the unemployed, and it feels like we are spending this year swimming through sad. It’s possible to get your head above the surface from time to time, but the weight of what we are going through is a constant downwards force. Some days not drowning is the best we can do.

There hasn’t been a lot of joy within reach, for a really long time now.

What there has been, though, is a huge amount of love. From care parcels from interstate (“Why do so many people send you things, Mum!?”) to online checkins. From surprisingly mysterious bottles of vodka and portable bamboo picnic tables to pictures of babies, loving texts, and crazy memes. We’re holding on to each other for dear life, even when we can’t actually touch.

I’ve been saying “I love you” more, and, from what I hear, it’s not just me. Sometimes it startles my friends, especially those who grew up with the toxic masculine “stiff upper lip” “feelings are for girls” and “men and women can’t be friends” ethos, but I can’t help it. It bursts out of me. The people I love the most are both the reasons I am sad and the reasons I am alive. Because so many of them are out of reach, yet still reaching out.

Even in places where life has been closer to normal for much longer, we’re all still living a pandemic, and things are still hard. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to be scared. Just keep holding on to each other. Keep reaching out. And know that you’re not alone.

A little bit of perspective

One of the things that happens to me if I don’t have enough social contact and things going on is that I lose perspective in a startlingly big way.

Small fights become huge.

Minor incidents get picked over, magnified, and blown out of all proportion.

Tiny frets that I would normally shrug off take root in my brain and grow, strengthen, and multiply until they are all consuming.

I oscillate between “I am the worst parent in the world and I am going to ruin my children’s lives” and “I am so proud of my children I could literally, absolutely, honestly burst. Any moment now.”

This year, lockdown or no lockdown, was always going to do that to me. The covid constraints of being socially distant and reducing contact with the outside world are almost unmanageable for a sociavore like me who thrives on immense amounts of human contact. Lockdown has absolutely made it worse, but just having to work from home more or less indefinitely is pretty damned challenging for me.

“Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are…well… human beings.” Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms.

The reason I recognise these symptoms is because I had them in my early 20s when I was home a lot with chronic fatigue syndrome. I lost perspective, went quietly loopy, and obsessed over everything.

Apparently retirees do this a lot, too. When they stop going to work for the first time, if they don’t replace work with something equally stimulating, they become the bane of committees everywhere, as they keep meetings going for hours over tiny details, and contact the manager over every little thing.

It certainly happened with my parents. They spent months completely immersed in a fight with the council over the number of parking permits they got (even though they had a garage and only one car). Over a matter of cm on a boundary marker with a neighbour. Over a fence. Over the trees in the street. Over everything.

If I ever retire, this will absolutely be me. And, to be honest, it is me now. My fuse is shorter than a pygmy possum. My perspective is as distorted as the mirrors in the funhouse at Luna Park. I am picking over old grievances, obsessing over ancient embarrassments, and examining my friendships under the microscope to see if they are unsound. I am losing it, my friends.

Because I know the signs, I am reaching out as much as I can, but as long as working from home is the norm, it will be a constant battle. On the bright side, knowing it makes it more manageable. On the downside, there’s no vaccine imminent, so we may be in this for the long haul.

Frying pan of enlightenment: a frying pan with a yellow lightbulb in the centre
Frying pan of enlightenment: a frying pan with a yellow lightbulb in the centre

I am not telling you this so that you can point and laugh, although if it makes you feel better, go right ahead. We have to take our pleasures where we find them these days. But I suspect I am not alone. I suspect that 2020 is a uniquely challenging time for everyone’s sense of perspective.

Which is why we all need to grab those people who fearlessly wield the frying pan of enlightenment and clutch them (virtually) close. Because it is really hard to recognise your own irrationality, but it’s often super obvious in someone else.

We’ll get through this. It is temporary. But we all need to hold each other up and breathe deeply just to keep going. So don’t berate yourself if your reactions seem over the top these days. Reach out, instead.

There are two of me

There are two versions of me right now. Both real. Both intense. Both valid. And they are not in conflict, not really. They want the same thing, long term. They both want covid to be vanquished – whether by vaccine, effective treatment, or spontaneous combustion, they don’t really care. They want their life back. But right now, in this instant, they are finding it hard to even look at each other.

The first side wants the lockdown to stay in force as long as necessary to keep us safe. They follow the evidence closely. They read all the scientific papers (although, to be honest, they are falling behind on this because some of the papers are scary and hard to read, and they know that peer review is not keeping up right now anyway, so these papers might get debunked next week, next month, or next year.).

This side knows they’re not an epidemiologist, and they want the epidemiologists in charge right now – because first and foremost, they want us all to be safe. They don’t consider any of us expendable (certain key politicians aside).

They really don’t want to go through this again, so they want to get it right. They know there’s no magic wand coming that will get this sorted by Christmas. They know next year might see more lockdowns, more learning from home, and more travel restrictions. They know they won’t be going to work anytime soon, and they know that next winter will very likely see more challenges. So they follow the evidence, and take comfort that Victoria, at least, has an epidemiologist in charge of the pandemic response, and they want to hug him, bring him cups of tea, and trust him to do the right thing.

The other side of me? They are crying themselves to sleep. They are unbearably lonely. They are pining for their friends across town, whose 5km radius circles don’t even think about overlapping. They are desperate to head interstate to visit family, see friends, and to hug and kiss people until it gets awkward and they have to be dragged away.

They want to eat out at restaurants, to walk in forests, to travel on planes. They want to work in an office with interesting people, to talk to people on trains, to be outside without a mask. They want their life back with an aching intensity they can barely express. They are locked down with much loved family, but all they can see are the loved ones out of reach.

This side only wants what they can’t have. They are pining for parties, for kisses, for hugs that go on forever, for all of the people they love, and fear for.

Both of these sides are rational. And both of them are me. And they can co-exist because it’s possible, whatever the media might tell you, to know that something is necessary, while hating it with every fibre of your being.

Both sides know that the enemy is not the government, not even the media (although, goodness knows, some sections of the media certainly seem to be allying themselves with the enemy). They know that the enemy is a virus. And viruses are immune to rhetoric, to foot stamping, and to childish tantrums. Worse, both sides know that we were warned, and still we were caught unprepared.

And so we pay the price. And for Melbournians the price is currently high. But it is higher elsewhere. Freedom is bought with pain, and death, and disablement. Maybe (but only maybe!) it’s a price that others will pay, not us, but we still know that price is too high.

So both sides pine, and both sides ache, and both sides stay inside, and wear a mask when they’re out. And both sides long for this to be over, and to feel the arms of far flung loved ones around them.

Touch hunger

This short BBC video on why touch is so important to human animals made me cry. We make much of our “higher brain function”, but we really do need to remember that we are, in fact, animals, and we have physiological needs that we can’t avoid. One of those is that we crave touch. There’s a reason why one of the most effective treatments for premature babies is skin-to-skin kangaroo care, where babies snuggle, skin to skin, with their parents or carers. Touch is crucial to human health and development.

I am an intensely tactile person. Sometimes I have to regulate that a little, because not everyone has the same touch needs. In February I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a few years, because he and his family have been living overseas. My life has changed radically in that time, as have my ways of greeting people. I unthinkingly went to kiss him on the cheek, forgetting how reserved he is, and was quite startled when he ducked.

It was a useful (if somewhat chastening) reminder that everyone has different needs when it comes to touch, and it can be tricky to navigate the balance when your needs don’t match those around you. It also highlights the fact that my experience of lockdown is not necessarily the same as anyone else’s.

I live with three people who are not nearly as tactile as I am. And a cat – nature’s way of emphasising our insignificance. Which is fine when I can get out and see people on a regular basis, collecting a regular feed of hugs, kisses, and even handshakes. A pat on the shoulder, a touch on the arm, a shoulder bump… there are so many ways to touch in a platonic but nourishing fashion.

When you deprive an animal of touch, the animals become literally sick, both in the mind – they develop a lot of anxiety – and also they live less, and become less healthy in the long term.” Touch researcher, via the BBC video linked above.

Here in Melbourne, many of us are becoming severely touch starved in lockdown. Living alone, living with people we’re not close to or don’t trust, or simply living with people whose touch needs don’t match our own, can all create an immense touch deficit that has all kinds of short and long term impacts.

It’s not like hunger, an instantly recognisable feeling. It can creep up on you. You might feel sad. Anxious. Tired. Irritable. Disconnected. Unmotivated. Sometimes you don’t even realise touch hunger is the problem until you receive some unexpected touch. A few weeks ago I was at the physio getting treatment for my hip, and even though he was wearing gloves, the sensation of being touched – though it was brutal, physio-beating-up-my-sore-muscles touch – nearly made me cry. And not from the pain.

I try to soothe myself by daydreaming of hug-filled reunions. Of greeting kisses. Of simply sitting close to my friends. Leaning on them. Holding them close. The yearning is overwhelming.

The big problem is, of course, that there’s not much we can do about it. This is something we have to live through. Curbing the spread of the virus is short term pain for long term gain, and it’s crucial to keeping us all safe. We’re not going to be able to go back to a tactile, hug-rich life until there’s a vaccine or at least an effective treatment for this microscopic home wrecker.

So it’s important to recognise that we all cope differently, we all suffer differently, and someone close to you might be struggling in ways you’re not. Think of touch as an essential nutrient that some of us consume at a higher rate than others. Even if your levels are fine, someone close to you may be literally starving from lack of touch.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to beg the cat for some affection.

Covid is not old vs young

In a classic piece of deceptive argument, some people are arguing that the covid response of places that are successfully managing the disease, including NZ and, increasingly, Victoria, is disproportionate. That we are protecting a few old people who were about to die anyway, at the expense of the future of our young people.

This is a classic strategy because it asks you to make a clear choice. Do you want to save some near-death old people, or do you want our young people to have a future? That’s surely a no-brainer! Well, no brain is exactly what’s involved, as it turns out.

And there are several reasons why this is an argument with zero logic attached. Firstly covid does affect young people, and sometimes quite seriously. Many people who become infected with covid suffer severe damage that could, indeed, compromise their future dramatically. It’s difficult to put numbers on that whilst in mid-pandemic – we have no idea what happens to a covid19 patient one year on, because a year ago we didn’t even know this disease existed – but we know it’s a common outcome.

Also, and it is disturbing that this needs to be said, older people are not worthless. Having just turned 49 I have a vested interest in not being considered disposable quite soon, so perhaps this is bias of the most personal form, but the idea bears some examination. At what age are you going to declare people expendable? Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing at 87 may have catastrophic results. Life would certainly have been less traumatic for many if she had not died so soon – even though you could certainly argue that 87 is old.

We have also seen that places like Sweden, who did not go into lockdown and had a much more relaxed attitude to the spread of the virus, have not escaped economic damage. In fact, they have suffered damage just like the rest of us. In other news, it turns out that it’s not lockdowns that cause economic damage. It’s the pandemic.

Another argument against lockdown has been around mental health. True, lockdown has been tough on many, and there is currently a mental health crisis. But how much of that is from the stress of the pandemic and the people dying, and how much the lockdown? It is probably impossible to say. What are the mental health impacts of losing your parents? Or your partner becoming seriously ill? Or losing a child to covid?

But the most serious logical flaw in the whole thing is that idea that this is a binary choice: “Lockdown for covid OR protect the future of young people”. The idea that we have no choice, from here on, but to accept that young people are doomed. Their future, their careers, their earning potential, are all casualties of covid and our response to it, or so the story goes.

But it’s very clear that they are not. Young people’s futures are, in fact, casualties of an extraordinarily toxic form of capitalism which allows workers to be exploited while their companies’ owners become unconscionably rich. Amazon, for example, has done phenomenally well out of covid, but those profits are lining the coffers of Jeff Bezos and his fellow investors, not the workers who are risking infection for below minimum wage and no sick leave. Our economy puts no value on community, on the environment. On healthcare or education. It puts no value on happiness or safety.

What if we had a universal basic income that ensures that everyone has what they need. Shelter. Food. Education. Healthcare. These are all human rights, and our society has the collective wealth to ensure that everyone has access to them. We simply choose not to.

Trials of universal basic income have shown that, far from stopping people working, it allows people to become more entrepreneurial. To volunteer more. To contribute more to their communities. And we could afford it if we closed company tax loopholes and introduced a wealth tax.

And I understand why the likes of Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg, and Rupert Murdoch encourage us to choose “the free market” at the expense of the vast majority of the population. They and their friends directly benefit from it. What I don’t understand is why so many other people buy it. Maybe it’s because we all secretly hope to be Jeff Bezos one day. Sitting like dragons on our hoards of gold, extracted from the blood of expendable workers.

Maybe it’s because it’s easier to get angry with the poor and think that the idea of someone getting something they might not be entitled to is more of a threat to us than our very planet being strip mined for anything of value to make the one percent richer.

It’s clear to me that we do have a choice. Lots of choices, in fact. 2020 could be an opportunity to remake our world. To examine our priorities and choose the way we want the future to look. We seem to be currently on track for gated communities for the 1% and slums for the rest of us. We could fix that.

How about, instead, we choose to make sure that everyone gets what they need. To make sure that we prioritise the environment that sustains us. To choose compassion over billionaires. Imagine what it would be like to live in a world like that.

I’m not ok

Well, there’s a plan, but it’s still a long, long, lonely road out, and a lot of potential caveats. Today I’m sad and teary and missing my people with fierce intensity. Tomorrow I’ll do my best to pick myself up and carry on.
facebook status message

On Sunday I posted this status message. I figured I needed a day to breathe, and grieve, and wrap my head around how far we still have to go, and then I could pick myself up and get on with things, as I have done most days since this nightmare began.

But Monday was not, I have to say, a huge success. Neither was Tuesday. I spent a lot of Wednesday in tears. Sure, I’m dealing with other things aside from lockdown. My hip is brutally sore and some days I can hardly walk, parenting comes with daily challenges that don’t stop in a pandemic (in fact some of them come with bonus complexity now!), I’m trying to exercise, lose weight, manage my mental health. My mum is dying the slow, brutal, drawn out death of dementia. I’m trying to work productively, be creative, be a decent contributor to the running of the household. Life doesn’t become a cuddly soft toy just because we’re living an extra nightmare right now.

But it’s the view out Melbourne’s windscreen that broke me. The extended lockdown. The strict limits on visiting friends and family. The one household we can bubble with once the 5km limit is lifted – though the necessary infection rate to make that possible seems impossibly out of range. I had naively assumed we could tough it out and then go back to the way we were in June, which, of course, is nuts because look what June did to us.

And now, with a sense of irony that is classic 2020, it’s RUOk day. Well, no. I am not ok. I’m not sure that anyone in Melbourne is. I’m losing perspective, losing contact, losing concentration, losing my cool. All year I’ve been fantasising about post-covid reunions that seem to recede with every step I take towards them. Every time I dream about them, they are a little harder to see.

I go to meetings just to see familiar faces, but I keep my own video off in case I cry. I’m sad, and I’m lonely, and it’s too, too hard. And I know all the tricks about gratitude and kindness and focusing on the positive. But sometimes the need to apply all those tricks starts to feel like an obligation to be permanently chipper. And I have no chipper left in me right now.

Sometimes, I think, we have to be real. To allow ourselves to be sad. To grieve. To pine. And I think it’s amazingly important that we talk about it. Because sometimes the relentless positivity is too much. Sometimes a smile is further away than we have the strength & resilience to reach today. And sometimes we need permission to cry.

This isn’t forever. We will come out the other side. But it won’t be easy, it won’t be quick, and it’s never painless. And it’s ok to howl into the void for as long as you need.

Duplicitous Duplex

Back when I did Computer Science, one of the first concepts we learned was the idea of simplex and duplex communications. Simplex means the communications can only ever go one way. So if I have a nerf gun and I’m firing little nerf darts at you, that’s simplex. Those darts are only going one way, because I have the gun and you don’t. It’s the one way street of comms.

Duplex communication means traffic can go both ways. But duplex is a little more complex than that. Full duplex means traffic can go both ways at the same time. Most two way roads are like that. A car headed north does not stop another car from heading south. They pass each other by (ideally!) without drama.

But a lot of duplex traffic is actually half duplex – traffic can indeed go both ways, but it can only go in one direction at a time. Think of it as roadworks where there’s only one lane working, so traffic controllers let the traffic go south for a while, then they stop that traffic and let the other side go north.

Video conferencing looks like it’s full duplex. It looks a lot like the person is sitting right in front of you. And the video, to all intents and purposes, is full duplex, because we see each other in (almost) real time. But the sound is actually half duplex. Only one person’s audio is getting transmitted at any one time. I don’t know the technicalities of how the actual traffic works underneath, but the effect, from the user end, is certainly half duplex.

This causes some problems. It’s really easy, when you’re online, to talk over the top of someone accidentally because of the lag between when someone starts talking and when we see & hear it – this is called latency. Latency is simply how long it takes the signal to travel over the network to us. It’s worse the further away someone is, but it can be bad even talking to someone in the next suburb, if the network is overloaded.

When you’re face to face with someone, if you both speak at the same time, you can usually hear what they’re saying even while you’re talking, and it kind of works out ok, especially if you stop quickly. But when you’re on a video call, only half of the audio actually comes through. This leads to all kinds of tangled situations where people think they’ve been heard and have not, or where we think we’ve been ignored when actually no-one realised we had started to speak.

It all means that we have to be concentrating hard when we speak, to make sure we are aware of anyone else starting to speak (remembering that latency means we might both start speaking at the same time, but not see/hear it until a moment later).

Without someone “chairing” the discussion and making sure everyone gets heard in turn, it can be difficult to be sure that you’re neither riding roughshod over others nor sacrificing your chance to be heard.

It’s just one of the many ways in which video conferencing is more exhausting than a face to face meeting. As always, it’s another reason to cut ourselves – and others – some slack, and never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by half duplex audio.

Trapped in my bubble

When I was in my twenties I got sick with a mysterious ailment known as chronic fatigue syndrome. There were few measurable, objective signs, and it was poorly understood by the medical profession. The main symptoms were extreme tiredness and recurrent infections. I could look and act normal for an hour or two, but it would cost me days of being effectively bedridden. For a couple of years I didn’t get out and about much at all.

It sucked. But it also taught me quite a lot about the nature of being human. Because left to myself, without enough to think about, or the energy to really tackle anything significant, I lost perspective. Quite a lot.

Molehills in my personal life became Everests. I overreacted to everything, because my heart and mind had nothing better to do than stew over every comment, every action or inaction, every silence, and every noise. It was a pretty unpleasant place to be.

“Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are…well…human beings.” – Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms.

It was useful, though, because having recognised that, I learned to avoid it. Any time since then that I’ve been stuck at home for extended periods, I’ve arranged plenty of visitors, excursions, and phone calls to make sure that I don’t lose perspective that way again. I always have someone nearby to wield the frying pan of enlightenment when my perspective starts to slip.

Frying pan of enlightenment (a grey frying pan with a lightbulb in the centre)

The combination of lockdown and ill-health, I have to be honest, is starting to put some holes in that strategy. Small setbacks are harder to manage. Reaching out takes more energy, sometimes, than I have. Minor comments take on far more significance than they warrant. I’m starting to analyse my friendships for signs that I matter – one of my biggest red flags. It’s a nasty little habit I learned from my mother that took me years to master. It’s disturbing to see it raise its ugly, demoralising little head.

Like most Melbournians I obsessively watch the new infection count every day. Today we went down nearly 100 compared to yesterday, but the delight of that is tempered by the cautious awareness it will almost certainly be higher tomorrow. We have three weeks left of Stage 4 lockdown, but no guarantee it will end as scheduled. That depends on the numbers, so we doom scroll constantly, looking for clues, or even random speculation, that might tell us what the numbers will do, even though it’s pure fantasy. We just want some certainty.

It would almost be better to know we won’t be back to normal for two years than to have no idea when it might be. I’m a control freak. I want to know how this progresses, what we have to deal with, so that I can make plans, figure out how to deal. But 2020 doesn’t merely laugh at plans, it cackles evilly.

Some days are good. Usually on those days the sun is shining and we manage a walk to the local cafe, obsessively sanitising and trading off human contact and exercise against infection risk.

Some days are beyond challenging. And sometimes there’s no obvious reason why one day is worse than the next. A song triggers intense longing for a distant loved one. A flower brings back memories. Recently a character on a tv show hugged someone and I burst into tears. Hugs. I remember them.

We carelessly built lives that joyfully intertwined with people all over the world. We might not have been able to afford to see them regularly, but it was always a possibility. An escape hatch. A holiday to plan. Now loved ones in the next state might as well be on the moon and I realise how precarious our existence really is.

I want my life back. I want the hugs and kisses I took for granted. The blissful sitting on the couch with cups of tea moments that are suddenly not merely out of reach but actively dangerous. I want to look into their eyes without a screen and a flickering, wibbly wobbly nbn between us. I want to share a bottle of wine, or make my friends a coffee. Without the pauses, the awkward talking over each other because of the lag. Without the network freezes and the dodgy microphone “what was that?”s. I want to breathe them in and feel their arms around me. I want to see, feel, and hear them clearly.

I want to feel part of the world again, not locked into a shiny bubble where my thoughts and feelings they curve back in on me, inescapable. Bouncing around like a broken echo of my heart.

My coach tells me I need to think of the upsides, and the biggest upside of all of this is that I am clearer than ever before on who matters, and how much I need them. And when this is over each and every one of them will need to brace themselves, as they get hugged to within an inch of their lives.