I heard someone remark recently that one of the things the pandemic has taken from us is some of the shared sense of struggle or difficulty that a society-wide negative event would typically result in. Because people’s experiences are so wildly disparate, many are reluctant to talk about the difficulties they’re facing because so many others have it so much worse.
Well, this is my space, so I’m going to tell a little about my experience during this time. This is probably boring to everyone but me, but I think it’s cathartic to talk about this time, and useful to record the experience of going through what is easily the most pivotal moment of history that has happened in my lifetime.
At the outset, let me say that I have it much, much better than many. No one I know has died, and few have gotten seriously ill. Work is going OK so far, and we’re doing fine financially. We have a comfortable home to be quarantined in.
But the pandemic still sucks for us, just like everyone. Is anyone having a really good time right now?
For context, I’m 37 years old and I live in Manhattan with my wife and 5 year-old daughter. I’ve been a freelance software engineer and entrepreneur for many years, but I’m in a new phase of my career in 2020 that I’m not quite ready to talk about publicly yet.
The beginning for me
The coronavirus first hit my radar in late January, when Chinese authorities shut down Wuhan and Trump shut down travel from China. I stumbled on a tiny subreddit called /r/china_flu, and watched over the next two weeks with growing alarm. I brought it up to a few people, but no one was concerned. It struck me as obvious that if China thought it was worth such draconian measures, it was probably too late to contain this and it was only a matter of time before it went global. So in early February I started buying non-perishable food, cleaning supplies, protective equipment, and other things I thought we might need if the worst should happen.
I also did something I’ve never done in twenty years of investing: I moved my retirement fund almost entirely out of equities and into cash. I reasoned that if I was wrong and lost out on a month or two of growth, I could live with that, and it was worth it to avoid my retirement getting cut in half or worse.
I got very lucky there, and sold at the top of the market. Another piece of luck: I sold three small investment properties about six months ago that I’m really glad to not be dealing with during this time. I also got lucky again by buying some deeply OTM put options which seemed very underpriced in mid-February, and which subsequently went up in value by more than 100x when the market crashed. Sadly, my luck ran out and I failed to sell before the market recovered, losing six figures of potential gain. That one still hurts.
For the second half of February and the first week or two of March, I was just waiting for what I felt was inevitable. Almost no one around me thought this was a big deal, but writers and podcasters whom I respect were starting to take notice and sound the alarm. Then in early March companies started sending people to WFH and schools started closing.
The last day my daughter’s preschool was open was March 13th, but we had kept her home for a couple days prior to that. There was virtually no testing happening, so it was impossible to know where the virus was already spreading, and it was fairly obvious that schools were about to be cancelled, so a couple extra days at home didn’t seem like a big risk.
So the three of us have been at home for two months now. We don’t go anywhere except for the park next to our house. I haven’t been inside another building since this started, we get all groceries and other purchases delivered.
The daily pain
In addition to the stress and uncertainty of watching the whole world melt down around us with no end in sight, there are two specific things that are the root cause of 90% of my negative experiences during this time:
First, trying to “homeschool” a 5 year-old and get work done at the same time is a disaster, particularly if your work requires long periods of concentration. If there’s one thing I’m hoping will come back soon, it’s some form of school or childcare. I constantly feel like I’m failing at work, parenting, or both. This heavily contributes to a sense of being busier and more stressed out than ever, even while so many parts of my life have disappeared (like virtually all social activities, for example).
Second, I miss the gym! For the first time in my adult life, I had found a gym routine that worked for me in a sustainable way, and I was approaching a year of going religiously 4-5 times per week. I try to workout at home or go for runs, but it’s much more difficult and less enjoyable. Which is probably why I’ve gained some weight (well, that and the stress eating and increased alcohol intake).
The long-term pain
In addition to the above, there are some deeper stresses that aren’t necessarily a cause of daily friction, but are slowly grinding me down.
First, I’m a little introverted, but still I miss seeing friends. Just the normal rhythms of meeting people for lunches, drinks, dinner, playdates in the park, etc. Many of our friends have fled NYC to other parts of the country. Sadly, some of them will not return.
Second, this hasn’t been amazing for my relationship with my wife. We’re doing OK, but after sixteen years of marriage and a rocky 2019, we were just getting into a good groove again. I miss going out to dinner with my wife, or our neighborhood cocktail bar. I miss going to Broadway shows with her.
Speaking of Broadway, I’m terrified for NYC. I love this city, and the pandemic has hollowed out so much of what makes it such a vibrant place. I worry for the restaurants and shops in my neighborhood. I worry about Broadway and all the other cultural institutions here. I don’t understand how the subway will survive. I don’t understand how NYC and New York are going to stay afloat financially. I’m committed to this city, but I’m scared for her.
I love to travel, especially internationally travel, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to do it at all for the next couple years. I can’t see getting on an airplane or cruise ship until there’s a vaccine. I feel like my world has gotten much smaller.
The most salient part of the pandemic for me is the monotony. March felt very chaotic, but for the last six weeks or so, I’ve gotten into a better daily routine. This helps in terms of energy, productivity, and not feeling like my world is spinning out of control, but it also means that the days and weeks pass in a jumbled blur.
Finally, there’s the psychological violence of watching your “leader” callously disregard the well-being of hundreds of millions of people and refuse to do the job that only he can do. And then worse, watching the members of his cult agree with him and revel in the nihilistic destruction of all we hold dear. It’s truly traumatic and makes me wonder if I simply don’t belong in this country. I may write more about this later, but I suspect this alone undergirds a large portion of the psychological and emotional difficulty of this time.
Some bright spots
I do want to highlight a few good things that I’m experiencing during this time.
I’ve found myself coming up with a lot more ideas of things to make during this time. This newsletter is the most obvious example, but there are others. I’m finding myself having to be fairly judicious about which ideas I pursue because I have so many. I assume this is my brain’s coping strategy on some level.
No more autopilot
Something about this period has caused me to really rethink large chunks of my life and decisions I’ve made or values I’ve taken for granted. It’s making me reevaluate what’s important to me and how I want to spend my time. I thought about those things before, but doing so now feels more raw and open, more honest.
I restarted my meditation practice a few weeks ago, using the Waking Up app by Sam Harris. It’s not magic, but I do find myself a little more calm and less reactive.
The best part of my day is the time I spend outside. We’re fortunate to live across the street from Riverside park, and I typically spend almost two hours in the park, both alone and with my wife and daughter. Regardless of what happens next, I plan to keep up with my new practice of morning runs and walks in the park.
I remain very pessimistic about both the pandemic and the economic fallout. My prediction is that the global economy won’t fully recover from this for 5-10 years.
I don’t think we’ll get the actual virus under control globally until we have a widely-available vaccine, which probably won’t be until 2022 at the earliest. The world’s economies will only barely limp along until then, while unemployment and desperation grows.
We’ll open things up partially, but people’s fear of the virus will mean that many industries will only see a fraction of the demand they did before, resulting in layoffs, bankruptcies, and damage to related or supporting industries.
Even once we have a vaccine and the economy can start to truly recover, that will take time. It took about four years to recover after the Great Recession. The recovery after the great depression took much longer.
So globally I think we’re in for a lot of economic and political turmoil, maybe even civil unrest. I don’t see any clear path out of this predicament currently, other than just going through it as best we can.
I hope I’m wrong.
What I’m looking forward to
Obviously, the most important thing to look forward to is the development of medical interventions, including a vaccine at some point. But those things are uncertain and out of my control, so I’ve been trying to come up with things to look forward to that I have reason to think might happen, or can influence.
In addition to this bizarre little newsletter, I’m working on a couple other work projects that I’m excited about. Nothing I’m ready to talk about yet, but it’s been nice to have a little time and space to step back and think about my work and where I want it to go over the next few years.
Partly to flee the city in case we need to, we bought a car in March and I’m looking forward to use it to explore New York state this summer, from the beaches to the mountains and everything in between.
Workouts in the park
The gym I go to originally started as a group of people doing workouts in the park, and I think we’ll be returning to that model this summer when NYC starts to reopen and the weather gets a little nicer.
I’m still hoping against hope that my daughter can start kindergarten in the fall. If not, and if the risk of doing so is acceptably low, we’ll likely try and hire someone to watch her part of the time. I have no idea how that will work logistically, but we’ll have to figure out something for this to be sustainable. We may even do that this summer if we can.
If you read all this, I applaud you. I told you this post would be mainly of interest to me, but I still felt it was important to talk through all this. I’d like to hear more accounts of others and how they’re dealing with this time too, so please share!