Inner Landscape

The view from up high

One recent Sunday afternoon I went for a ‘distanced’ hike with a good friend I hadn’t seen since shelter-in-place began. She and I have always been hiking buddies; most of our conversations take place on a trail somewhere, preferably one high up, with a view. This time we were solving for empty space, a wide trail where we could walk apart from one another, and a slower pace because she’s pregnant and I’m just getting back into hiking. The weather was pleasantly hot, and there weren’t too many people on the trail. 

As my friend caught me up on what’s been going on in her life – work stuff, family stuff, preparations for her soon-to-arrive baby – I slowly began to realize how much I’ve changed in these past few months. Alone in my own head, spending time mostly with my husband and, over videoconference, work colleagues and a few friends, I’ve shifted focus. The things I wanted to talk about were different than they would have been in February. 

“How are you doing?” has become a real question. The answer changes like the weather. I’m more aware of weather, is one answer; I’m spending more time outside, and when inside, more time with a view of the sky. I think about work differently, what it is and how it functions, my own and other people’s, the kind I want to do and how I want to do it. I’m learning about soil. I’ve seen spinach flower and now I know what that looks like, and it’s fascinating. I’ve learned that an artichoke is a perennial, can grow over seven feet tall, and looks a lot like the plant version of a dinosaur. I’m thinking about seasons, both literally and metaphorically, and the (larger) role I’d like them to play in my life. There are people I miss, and people I don’t miss, and I’m surprised by who’s in which group. I have a different relationship to my physical self. 

I’m reading more, and more thoroughly. I’m cooking more. I watch lizards and bees and squirrels and the way the hummingbirds chase one another off a particularly good batch of blossoms. I’m learning the streets and landscape immediately around my home. I know half a dozen loop walks I can do to fit almost any amount of available time or energy. I have a new appreciation for my neighbors. I have a new dis-appreciation for the news, less because it’s sensationalistic and more because it’s repetitive. I am thinking about race, and gender, and systemic violence – but I’m trying to do so more slowly, more thoughtfully, than I might have done a year ago. “You were there in those days,” asked a junior colleague who I mentor, “what was that like?” She was asking about tech-bro culture and gender prejudice and how those related to my own experience in tech, during Google’s earlier years. As I answered, I realized the bitterness had gone from my response. In many ways I still don’t know how to assess those days, but somewhere in these past months, I’ve made my peace with that. 

Some of these changes are trivial, some significant – but they’re all meaningful at least to me. I don’t know how visible they are to others. Aside from a darker tan and more-sun-bleached hair, I don’t think I look very different. I am likely to tell you more than you want to know about the sex of zucchini flowers, or the way a corn stalk bends zigzag as the ears plump up, but beyond that – I don’t know. 

What I do wonder is this: if I am changing so much, and if I hadn’t noticed while it was happening – is everyone else changing too? I don’t mean we’d all change in the same way, of course – but are we all changing? Do we always change so much, so fast, or is the chaos and uncertainty of these days accelerating the process? 

What will I – what will we all – be like in a few more months? 

Settling in

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So whatever this is, we’re past the beginning.

We’re past the new. We’re past the where-is-my-charger, I-can’t-find-the-connector-cable, what-should-I-eat-for-lunch-every-day. We’re past do-I-still-wear-makeup-and-shower-in-the-morning. We’re past wondering if there will be eggs and toilet paper (either there will or there won’t). We’re past the shock, the novel, the sudden. We’re past canceling trips. We’re past just-these-few-weeks. We’re past oh-well-it’s-just-a-few-weeks.

We’re past all that.

Whatever it is, we’re into the next.

Things I’m reading

Today is Thursday night, for me week 7 of shelter-in-place/work-from-home/etc.

Things I’m reading:

Things I’m grateful for:

  • Somebody at work wants to start a book club, with books not about work.
  • Sun.
  • The peas are up! And the kale! And the beans! And the melons! And the spinach! They’re all up about a quarter of an inch, but still. They’re up! And there’s one ripe strawberry, which I’m hoping to eat before a squirrel does.
  • That our house, the house of the Horrible House Remodel, came with an Awesome Garden. We at least partially bought the house because of it, and yet. The Awesome Garden is even more awesome than I realized. The past several weeks have offered me much more time to spend in it, and I love it.
  • That we got the new fence and raised vegetable garden beds in before shelter-in-place.
  • Clear air, and the views over the southern & eastern hills.
  • Two days ago, the deer that hang out in the far yard eyed me carefully while I sat on a bench under a tree. I held very still, and they carefully walked right past me and continued on their way to graze on whatever they wanted to graze on.
  • Having a kitchen, and a heating system.
  • Having plenty to eat.
  • That my family is healthy.

People I miss:

  • My parents.
  • My nephew-by-friendship, and his parents.
  • My hiking buddy.
  • My afternoon-walk friend, and my mentee.
  • My college friend who just moved to California.

Things I’m surprised by:

  • How just plain exhausting videoconferences are.
  • My own lack of patience for said videoconferences; most large virtual meetings; project status updates; and other work-process type things.
  • How nice it is to be at home all day.
  • How not-stir-crazy I feel.
  • How I still feel busy (although, and I’m grateful for this, less than a week or two ago).
  • How easily we switched from eating out nearly every night (which started because no kitchen), to cooking nearly every night (because shelter in place).
  • The difference an ergonomic keyboard makes.

That is all.

The (online) social network I wish we had

I work at Google. Everything posted here is my personal opinion and content, and in no way Google’s official take on anything at all.

March 15, 2020

Over on Twitter, Jim posts about the Decameron and Erik is discussing pandemic math. My group chat with my writing group covers the challenge that is lunch at home; Kate posts east coast beach pictures to Instagram; my cousin Angela links to a diagram about the safest way to greet someone (middle finger up: no germ transmission! ha); Adam posts a poem that causes me to tear up because it is so right and exactly what I needed to read right now; Estee lists food it might be helpful to have at home in case of quarantine, and how to grow micro greens because you’re going to want something fresh. There are suggestions for how to help out your favorite small local businesses; there is advice for what to tell your children. Everyone who cooks posts pictures of stew; everyone who bakes posts pictures of pie (and other comfort-food desserts).

We’re at home in a way we’re not used to. We’re online in a way we are used to, but in this week’s pandemic-focused world, our online-ness matters more. Online, we’re doing the most human thing there is: gathering together to face down fear. We’re gathering virtually because that’s what we can do right now. We’re gathering, and we’re checking in with the people we care about. Are you there? Are you okay? Are your parents okay? Your kids, the people you love? Your home? Here’s how I’m doing. What about you? I’m scared. I thought of something funny, want to hear it? How are you? Are things okay?

And most of all:

We’re going to get through this, right?

In the middle of all this real-time person-to-person connection that can potentially help us feel less alone, less isolated in our strongly-recommended-social-distancing, gatherings-over-50-people-prohibited and gatherings-over-10-people-strongly-disrecommended context:

Advertisements for vans to go on vacation in

Ads for food delivery

Ads for a new type of women’s undershirt

My hometown’s declaration of a city-wide emergency

Something about real estate

Ads for work-from-home productivity tools

Ads for a startup selling something that I actually cannot tell what it is

 

There are two problems with this:

First, when did it become okay to merge a bunch of commercial demand-generation nonsense in with messages from people we actually care about? In tech we talk a lot about the need to separate work from life – the more I think about it, I think the real split we need is commercial from non-commercial. The mix has snuck up on us so gradually that it’s easy to assume it’s always been this way, that it’s inevitable, but if we were designing this from scratch, is there any way we’d choose this? A discussion about the Decameron that cheers me up because it reminds me of everything I loved about college, a photo from a friend who’s grateful she got her family back to their beach-town home, my cousin’s sense of humor – those are fundamentally different from that undershirt ad. When I want people, I want people.

Note, this isn’t about relevance; most of that commercial stuff is arguably relevant to me, and might even be something I’d be interested in (when I was a kid, I convinced my parents to acquire an RV – the advertised van is four-wheel drive, and I had fun looking at the pictures on the company’s website!). It’s not that I necessarily don’t want this stuff. I might have fun browsing it, the same way I used to enjoy browsing magazines. But if I do want it, I want it somewhere else, not mixed in with messages from people I care about.

Second,  it is just plain frustrating and a bad user experience that all these updates from people I care about are scattered all over the place. I want some kind of hub. I want to not have to think about whether a particular person is on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or has a blog or a group chat or whatever. I want to look at one thing and have everything show up, photos and comments and all. I want to reply or comment or like or send a heart or a hug or a smile or some kind of emoji for sympathy (I don’t know what emoji that would be, advice welcome) from within the single hub I’m looking at, and have it reach the person I send it to on whatever app (or other hub!) they use.

I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t have a particularly great path forward in mind. But – if I’m hopeful that the pandemic brings out the best in us as humans, and I am, I’m also hopeful that it may also cause us to rethink some of the directions we’ve been sending our interactions with each other.

Tech is awesome.

We can do better.

Peace and planning in 2020

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Hiking at the Pinnacles, Dec 2020

A few weeks back I re-read Getting Things Done. It’s a classic of productivity, and I’d been feeling overwhelmed: not by big things, which happily have settled down, but by daily life’s minutia. I needed to wrangle things into place, and make space to move forward.

Getting Things Done is interesting. The core idea involves capturing all the things, getting them out of your head and into some other system so you can free up your brain for other tasks. This resonates with me. I tend to shy away from looking at what I’ve signed up for – I just don’t want to know. But really, I do know, and that knowing drags at me.

As I made my list, beginning to clear the clutter in my head (and make things actionable: it’s not “clean up office,” it’s “put away shoes & makeup”), I started to think about how similar the ideas are to other practices of mental clarity. From Marie Kondo’s “does this spark joy?”, to the early Arts & Crafts movement & William Morris’ “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” to traditional rhythms of spring cleaning or breaking or burning possessions at various celestial or cultural milestones, to cleaning up one’s desk before beginning work – the notion of streamlining, getting things in order, creating a fresh start by creating a fresh sense of place is fundamental. As humans, we tell ourselves this story, these instructions, over and over again.

And so. It’s New Year’s. I don’t have New Year’s resolutions; I’ve learned I don’t think in years. Instead, I have a short list of goals for January and some habits I’m banking on to get me there. I’ve cleaned out my closet and the pantry, and detailed out the spreadsheet that tracks the house remodel. Tonight I’ll celebrate with hot cider and fairy lights on a rosemary tree, and watch my breath steam up in the outdoor cold.

What does your fresh start look like?

Gratitude

Trees

My baby nephew-by-friendship

A whole bunch of people I’m glad to see

New York not changing half as much as everyone says it does

Libraries

Books

My parents

My husband

Did I mention trees?

A friend from far away visiting this city at the same time as me

The subway

Interesting weather

An old friend who knows what I mean about things

Her awesome husband

A really great set of restaurant recommendations that coincidentally sent me into some parts of the city I usually don’t visit

Beaux Arts architecture

Walking

The familiar and comfy sounds of New York city streets

Goodnight!

Homesick

Earlier today, I read this article about trees in Louisville. It made me homesick for the city: golden leaves in fall, immense-trunked ancient trees, older than most of the buildings in the town I live in now, sweeping down broad lawns of summer green.

I was only in Louisville for a few months, from August or September of one year through April or May or June of the next, but I fell in love with Ear X-stacy and Zteca and a coffeshop that offered the best cardamom team I’d ever drunk. I clomped amazedly through crisp and shattering snow on my way out for coffee and the paper on weekend mornings, ran down big green hills in the park in spring. Sometimes at night the drifting blue of the Union Pacific’s infinite train whistle kept me up, and I would lay peacefully awake, shoveled in amongst blankets, between the chill of the never-quite-shut-tight historic single-pane windows and the barrelling warmth of after-add central heating in my carriage-house apartment.

It wasn’t really Louisville, after all that – my place was across the river in New Albany, Indiana. But I went to the hemp store on Bardstown Road when I started to miss sewing and California-ness (I bought the softest, silkiest hemp fabric I could find and made a bathrobe), and when I went out for drinks with the crew after work the places we drank, when not raised high above the river on stilts, were all in Louisville. It was the nearest big city, the center of gravity, and at that time I still generally gravitated toward cities. Louisville was a graceful one, and lovely.

I miss it sometimes.

It’s the little things

Back in mid-August, I called Comcast to see about reducing our bill. It had been slowly creeping up, and at just over $190 per month, finally seemed too high to keep paying without objecting.

So I called. The person I spoke to was helpful; he figured out a new option, credited back some serviced I’d never wanted, and got the monthly bill reduced by about $50. Success! I felt smug: $50/month is pretty great ROI for a forty-five minute phone call.

Then I got the next month’s bill.

And it was higher than before.

The new bill was now up over $200 for the month. (We also got a giant box of new equipment I hadn’t been expecting, and didn’t particularly want.)

Sigh. The next week was busy at work; I didn’t call. The next week I was due for jury duty, and after a false start where I had to call back the next day, discovered I didn’t need to go in. I decided to use this time to deal with the plethora of small annoying things that accrue in life – like calling Comcast.

So I called.

It turned out that for some reason, several monthly fees had been doubled on the new account, and for reasons unknown, the system had assigned me a new modem that I didn’t request, didn’t want, and didn’t need. The helpful person I spoke to figured things out quickly, credited all the pointless charges back, and told me how to return the unnecessary and unrequested equipment.

All along the way, everyone was friendly, helpful, and reasonably good at problem-solving. But the question remains: why do problems like this need solving in the first place? Why is Comcast’s system built so that it’s possible to charge someone a “regional sports fee” doubled-up? Why did the system not keep track of the fact that I own my own modem, and don’t need to rent one? And going back further than that, if there was a cheaper way for me to get the exact same thing while paying less, why the heck did that not happen automatically (I mean, I know why – because more money – but come on, that’s not a good answer!)?

And most of all: why can’t I feasibly bill Comcast for my time spent fixing their problems?!

Tradition!

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A couple days back, I woke up with the sudden and complete conviction that I must make a baby blanket right now.

My good friend K is pregnant; I’m going to be an aunt! I’ve never been a woman with that certain “I must be a mother,” feeling, but dammit I know I’m supposed to be an aunt. Aunt-ing matters to me.

And what do you do, traditionally, when there’s a baby coming to someone close to you? You make a blanket for the baby, that’s what you do. So.

The yarn store was closed.

It was, however, open late on Tuesdays, and last night I stopped by. The store owner showed me which yarns were machine washable, and where I could find a pattern. A dozen or so cheerful-seeming people, mostly but not entirely women, of varying ages, were hanging out at a big table, chatting and working on projects; one of them helped me pick colors. I bought yarn and a hook (I crochet; I don’t love knitting). The pattern is a wavy sort of stripe.

I’m making a baby blanket. I’m aiming to get it done by the time I next see K, a little over a week from now, on the other side of the continent.

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