Lockdown Strategies

So how are you coping with the lockdown?

Everyone has their own way of dealing with adversity. After three weeks of Corona virus lockdown, many of us are feeling the strain. The lack of any clear schedule for when this is likely to end is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the situation. I wanted to share my own experience of what is working well for me and also what has been less successful. I hope some of the tips below are useful, and I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts and tips on how to deal with the challenge of social distancing and self-isolation.

My top 10 tips (in no particular order) are below with one extra and a personal reminiscence thrown in:

Develop a structure to the day. Whether you are working or not, having a clear shape to your day is key. Routines are important for mental health, and help us keep a sense of purpose and motivation. For those working, getting up a few hours before you start work and having a clear end to the working day, with regular breaks in between, will help you maintain work-life balance. If you are working from home, it is easy to lose this sense of structure. For those without work, it is doubly difficult but no less necessary.

Find time to self-reflect. The Covid-19 lockdown is a new and challenging experience for all of us, no matter what one’s circumstances, no matter whether you are among the essential staff who are still required to go in to work, staff having to work from home, or among those who have been furloughed or out of work, Take a little time each day to self-reflect and to get in touch with how you are feeling. Meditation and mindfulness can be helpful, but so can writing a diary or even just having some down time in your flat or garden.

Enjoy those around you. Everyone is different so everyone will have a different way of coping with the disruption of lockdown. This situation is unprecedented and people are often unexpectedly resourceful when the chips are down. Whether it’s colleagues you’re talking with via Zoom or the people in your household, appreciate the people around you. You may find that personality traits that you didn’t particularly like about someone in “normal” life are actually valuable and helpful coping strategies. Share laughter and try to see the best in what people offer.

Don’t ignore your emotions. It’s natural to feel anxiety, depression, fear, grief, self-doubt and all the other emotions that make us human, especially during such a challenging period. Everyone has their own private concerns, and it’s important to confront these, whether or not you decide to share them with others. It might be concern about ageing or vulnerable family members who might become exposed to the virus, fears about job security and finances, or worries about mental health during the lockdown. We are all humans, and a human tragedy is unfolding as the virus progresses. Try to be honest about how this is affecting you, seek help from friends or families if it helps to discuss, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you have worries about how you are coping.

Be honest but bite your tongue! Especially if you are in a household with limited space, it’s easy for tempers to flare. It’s therefore important to be honest when you feel impatient, resentful or angry about other people’s actions, or when you feel your efforts are under appreciated and you want more recognition. But try to communicate these feelings in a sensitive way, and be aware that others are in the same boat. Flaring up when others least expect it is not helpful. It can be helpful to create a structure for having honest, open, non-judgemental dialogue with colleagues, family or friends.

Limit your screen time. Don’t spend your whole time on the mobile phone. Having worked as a journalist for many years, I know first hand the tendency for keeping in touch with events to become an obsessive activity. I certainly have a tendency to look up the latest data on Covid19 casualties or breaking news about potential vaccines as soon as I wake up in the morning, or last thing at night. Spending too much time tapping the latest news on the mobile, however, can become a way of avoiding the need to self-reflect and get in touch with emotions. Rather like alcohol it can be a stimulant that becomes compulsive. The lockdown has made it all too easy to spend most of your day on social media chats and groups and to forget the need for exercise, perspective and self-care.

Enjoy the evenings and weekends. I have found it helpful to differentiate my work and leisure time, and to ensure that they felt different, so that the days and nights didn’t all blur into one another. Having a clear routine for the day and then the evening, and having a different pattern to work days and weekends helps create a structure to your week.

Look to nature. I love walking around the garden during the day time, and I also have an allotment which is hard work but mentally soothing. Even if you are in a flat in a city environment, observing nature can be a huge comfort. If you have a garden, try to get out each day for an hour or two, even if the weather is cold. Or spend some time exercising in a nearby park, while still observing the social distancing regulations. Looking at trees and birds or even just the blueness of the sky can help take you away from any dark places inside. Even if you cannot do that, look out of the window and get in touch with the nature around you.

Sleep and eat well. I never feel right if I let my diet slip, or if I stay up late and then sleep in for most of the morning. Many people will face the Covid19 pandemic and lockdown with feelings of anxiety and fear, and this can easily affect normal sleep and dietary patterns. Here again, people are so different it’s difficult to be prescriptive about what is a right or wrong approach. Some people may overeat when they feel anxious, others tend to eat nothing at all; some people may suffer from insomnia, while others may sleep at all hours and feel stressed as a result. Try to get in soothing routines that help you east and sleep normally; it could be a family meal in the early evening or a bath before bedtime, or whatever works for you. Having time for self-reflection can also help you identify what works best.

Learn a new skill or hobby. I find that learning is one of the most motivating things I can do at any time. Whether it’s a foreign language or learning a new craft skill such as pottery, learning helps me dig myself out of the mazes of introspection and opens up a world of limitless possibilities. The number of people offering courses during the lockdown has increased exponentially, so now is a great time to try something new. Follow your gut feeling about what this should be. Now might be a great time to talk to your employer about some extra training or a qualification. But you might just try some new hobby that you’d never thought you would have time for. Bee keeping? Icelandic? Online yoga? Whatever it is, learning a new skill can be the opportunity of a lifetime and will help you make the most of the lockdown.

And finally…

Practice self-compassion. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Most people I know have regrets about how they are doing during the lockdown. Whether it’s having flare-ups with family members, failing to keep the pace up at work or not getting the novel written, no-one quite manages to live up to their own expectations. I am probably the worst offender I know in this category so my final recommendation is to practice self-compassion. When the lockdown started, I planned to learn computer programming, complete a Great Courses in Physics and Quantum Theory, learn German and write a book on the Energy Transition. By the end of week one of the lockdown, these ambitions had multiplied in much the same way that bindweed proliferates in an allotment. I realised that the only way to get something done would be to limit my ambitions, and even if I did not achieve these more limited goals, not to be too hard on myself. Don’t beat yourself up. Stay well!

A Personal Reminiscence

When she entered her teens my daughter became conscious of the emptiness of the universe, the void. She had had a dream that she was on her own in a space capsule, “lost in space” just like in the old movie. She asked me: but supposing we are all just on our own travelling through empty space and that nothing has any meaning?

She had always enjoyed doing her room up (at vast expense as it always seemed to need another coat of paint!) and I was struck by her image of space travel. I asked her to imagine the space capsule and what was inside. The picture of the space craft sprang readily from her vivid imagination and she described the empty ship, and the bleakness of her surroundings.

I asked her: So how would you like it to be? We spent several minutes giving the place a makeover. We painted the sides and put up decorations, and it felt like the house when she had her friends round for a party and the mess and clutter was cleared away and balloons put up.

I was reminded of this vignette when thinking about lockdown. It does feel a bit like being in a space ship in the middle of nowhere. But creativity and imagination can help transform what could be like a prison into a rich experience which expands our horizons. As William Blake said:

The mind is its own place
And of itself can make
A heaven of hell

A hell of heaven.

Best wishes to all during the lockdown. Stay safe and stick by the social distancing guidelines. Even if you’re not on the front line, you can save lives by being caring and responsible.

Growing Pains

I have been reading Emily Carr’s autobiography Growing Pains.

Autobiography is not a genre that I typically enjoy, but this narrative by the Canadian West Coast painter has hooked me. She is young, creative, aspiring but also abrasive, acerbic and sharp. You wonder if her slashing wit is a kind of defence, a way to keep people from getting anywhere near to the vulnerable quick of her inner Self.

I was reminded of my own “growing pains” when I first went to London after university. Aged 22, with a moderately good degree, I had looked forward to being unleashed on the Big City. But my salary was barely enough to cover rent and food, and I had an overdraft and non-sympathetic bank manager. My girlfriend was erratic and still at University. Weeks earlier my friends had all been in walking distance, and available at all times of day or night; now they were scattered, getting to see them would often take more than an hour and work sandwiched the time to see each other into a narrow band between 6 pm and midnight.

Sometimes it takes time to find your feet. My first bed-sit was so damp there was a strong fungal quality to the air, and the radiators didn’t work. I seem to remember my parents had helped me financially by buying me a suit and office shirts, but the “furnished” room didn’t even have coat hangers, let alone a wardrobe to hang them in. I was utterly miserable. It was hardly worth buying furniture for a place I knew that I would leave within months. In fact, I made my escape after a few cold weekend days and nights wrapped up in a sleeping bag.

The drudgery of my accommodation matched that of the job. I had joined a large accountancy firm and was training to be a chartered accountant, but after a month I knew this was not for me. During the day I would tick invoices, take stock, and run through questionnaires with employees of the firm I was auditing, with not a clue about the overall purpose of these activities. I had intended to be a journalist but for some bizarre reason this had seemed insufficiently serious an activity, and a good solid background in finance looked to be a better bet. It was, after all, the early 1980s. My mistake, but it would take me six months and around 60 job applications to rectify it.

A friend had offered me a room in a house her father had rented on her behalf in Maida Vale. She had assembled a motley crew of our old college friends, and we would all smoke and drink far too much; but what started as good-natured bohemianism gradually disintegrated into toxicity, tedium and tantrums. No-one could agree what to watch on TV — except when it was the Young Ones, and then we would all sit glued to the sofa, facing ourselves, as if in a mirror, before animosities resumed when the episode was over.

Wine and cigarettes left little spare cash for meals out and drinks in the City with friends. When the opportunity for these arose, however, it carried its own pitfalls. We would chew the bitter cud of other people’s success and ruminate despondently about our own mediocre trajectories and occasional meteoric failures. The dullest of my University chums had jobs at companies like Bankers’ Trust and JP Morgan and in some cases were earning 10x as much as I was.  How was this fair?

More to the point, how was this even possible? I had been used to being the crème de la crème and suddenly here I was, earning less than almost everyone, in a miserable job, in miserable accommodation, in miserable company and with nowhere that I could really call my own. This was not what I had expected at all!

But the worst thing was that it was so difficult to admit that disappointment. Enjoying London was part of the deal, it was what made you an adult, and having fun – drinking too much, smoking too much, staying out too late and missing the last train, ending up sozzled on London Bridge in the cold rain and getting a taxi home that you couldn’t remember let alone afford – this was Real Life, this was what gave It meaning. Life. With a capital L.

Generation Gaps

I am thinking of this slightly non-satisfactory period in my life because my own two children are each, in their own way, about to face that same challenge of Growing Up. One is heading off to University, one is just through with her studies and about to take the leap into the unknown that is life without parents. Both of them, I hope, know that life is never going to be “without parents” (even now, when both my parents have died, they are still in some mysterious way present and close to my heart) but it is a big step to take — to strike out on your own and determine your own future, and be responsible for your own decisions.

Reading Emily Carr’s book reminded me that this is a recurrent challenge for all generations, one that has affected young people through the ages. Emily Carr was 28 years old when she left Canada to study art in the UK. Her account of her journey is sliced through with nostalgia for her Canadian home, and London looms as a particularly difficult station on the way.

What could be more frightening than visiting a strange country where you know no one? She visits various friends and relatives, suggested by well-intentioned family members and her guardian, but you have a sense of intense ambivalence. Routinely, she demonizes the individuals she has been urged to befriend, railing at them from the start, even though often, over time, she grows to feel a strong affection for them.

While these people are there for her in her hour of need, you feel they are also a kind of extended family that prevents her from individuating from the bosom of her parents. Perhaps, then, it is the people you know most closely who are actually most frightening, because they can hold you to your old way of life while you are fighting to break free and be yourself? I recall the poem by John Clare, written when he was in an insane asylum:

“And even the nearest
Whom I love the best
Are strange – nay, somewhat
Stranger than the rest”.

Perhaps Emily Carr’s “growing pains” were more painful because she had lost both her parents by the time she was 15. Emily doted on her father, but became estranged from him because, in her view, she stood up to his autocratic manner; and she was close to her mother, but being part of a large family, seemed ever to be insecure about having her mother’s individual undivided affection.

You have a sense of deep, unresolved grief at the loss of her parents, complicated by these complex cross-currents of love, affection, loyalty but also betrayal, pain and divided loyalties. This desperate crucible of feelings is intensified by her travel. She wants to be an artist, but to achieve that at the level to which she aspires, she must cut herself off from her past. She feels homesick, but identifies herself as a “difficult” person, relentless, never giving in to what others want her to be. She is Rebel Yell rather than Canadian Club.

Even more painful than the Pain of Being is Emily’s capacity for joy. She wants so much, her soul is so wide, her heart so big. Again, I am reminded of a poem, this time by Emily Dickinson:

“I can wade Grief
Whole pools of it
But the least taste of joy
Breaks up my feet”.

Reading “Growing Pains”, I was reminded of the complexity of this process of growing up and being able to live on your own terms. It is not an on/off switch, even though the law insists on putting in place markers at 16, 17, 18 and 21 that define black-and-white thresholds for being “adult enough” to do certain activities.

I feel this gives a sense of it being like an exam, a series of hurdles to be cleared. Rather, “growing up” is a continuum. It continues through teens, twenties and thirties and arguably it never actually stops. It is joyful, painful, bitter-sweet, multi-faceted. It isn’t just about how you are, but how you want to be, and how you want to seem.

Virtual Reality

We had a stand at the exhibition centre in Houston, a cavernous building that resembled an aircraft hangar. I have been to many such industry events, where contractors, equipment manufacturers, industrialists, manufacturers and a plethora of ancillary firms gather to show off their wares. This time, I was left wondering whether there was a different, more authentic way to do business.

Behind the scenes

The day before the show opened to the public, I had arrived at the exhibition hall to set up the stand. We got out of our Uber at the back of the venue. The parking lot stretched from the north end of the building to the south, a distance of around 400 meters. Containers littered the tarmac, vying for space with the vans and lorries, huge cotton bales tight with wire and rope, and dozens if not hundreds of the blue-collar staff wearing hard hats and orange-yellow gilets. We wheeled our voluminous suitcases across the tarmac to what appeared to be an entrance.

I was wearing my grey suit and Minoan Sun t-shirt, and my colleague was in shirt-sleeves and shorts. We could have been two tourists heading for the beach. The hangar was heaving with activity. I felt like I had woken up to find myself on a football pitch in the middle of the warm-up. Small and large forklifts dribbled their way through the crates, large cranes and caterpillar vehicles ground forward at a slower pace. People shouted at each other, in a variety of languages, pitches and tones, and with a great range of emotional tenors on display, typically impatience, anger and irritation.

The stands were in various stages of construction, some still wrapped up in tight plastic film, others with their sides assembled towering 30 feet from the ground. Green, blue and white wires dangled from the ceiling, often looped in coils, so they resembled a hangman’s noose. Forklift trucks revved their engines. Not all the drivers were men, but they all looked pretty tough.

The stands consisted of panels and ribs of scaffolding, large crates covered in cellophane, metals struts and tubes that formed the frame. For some reason, they reminded me of the bleached bones we used to see in the gamepark when an animal had died and then rotted in the hot African sun. I also had the image of a whale, its huge bones flenched and stripped of their life.

All Right on the Night?

At this early stage of their construction, it felt like there was an equality between the highest and lowest, the biggest and smallest; but a hierarchy was rapidly evolving as the panels of the bigger stands were erected.

There was a hierarchy among the workers, too. As soon as I entered the hangar, a large lady with a yellow vest that bulged like a back-to-front backpack shouted in my direction. Apparently even this outer sanctum of the hall could be entered only by those wearing a luminous orange or yellow plastic vest. Once this had been obtained from the designated room, it became evident that we also needed a wrist band, and this could only be obtained from a similar designated room on the far other side of the building. But crossing the inner sanctum of the exhibition hall to obtain this was Not Allowed.

We were required to circumnavigate the hall, a journey of approximately half a mile. In the end, we waited for the mayhem to cover our tracks, then walked across the forbidden waters between us and the wrist-band room, our act of silent defiance, a kind of forbidden miracle.

As the work progressed, rather than bare bones, a light gloss began to appear from the carnage and disarray. The make-up went on layer after layer. The large corporate logos were meticulously positioned, towering over the scene, their reds and gold and blues and greens and yellows shouting out the message: We’re here, we’re visible! Bare floors with tyre marks and cuts were covered with spongy, scuff-free carpets, deep linos that yielded to the footfall of passers-by, giving a feeling of plushness and depth.

Wall hangings, corporate wallpaper, huge banners replaced the bare panel walls. Makeshift tables and booths sprung up out of nowhere. Inner meetings rooms with large white uncomfortable cubist armchairs were magicked up out of the skeletal landscape, mirages in a desert of tat. By the end of the day, the workers in their orange and yellow vests, and hard hats, had begun to give way to a different class of stand visitor. Grey-suited executives in pencil skirts and robust looking suits looked over the stands with a critical eye. Some barked anxiously into their mobile phones, angry that certain details had been overlooked, commanding perfection.

The morning that the show opened, we arrived at our stand – A350. Our stand was a modest 9 square meters and at floor level on the edges of the exhibition hall arena (some of the biggest stands at the centre of the hall spanned several hundred square meters and were two or three storeys high).

Other stands were already unpacking their hampers with the eager zeal of those who have been visited by Santa Claus.  Heaps of glossy leaflets, thick corporate books, stress foam objects from the state of Texas to the human brain, objects of every variety of plastic were conjured out of nothing and festooned the stall furniture. It was like the climax of a Symphonie Fantastique, a wave of fake opulence in a petrified forest of kitsch.

Every stand was identified by a number, and the furnishings of each stand had been delivered based on this. A350 had performed its own little miracle, the table had been spread with a covering with corporate logo and tagline, the magazines and newsletters were assembled in pretty fans and sheaves of analytical insight, and the maps we had created were piled high but already going like hot cakes.

The one thing it lacked, however, was a television screen. This was a sad omission by our corporate affairs department (Nina). The TV is important because it creates a sense of movement. Increasing footfall, the number of visitors who visit your stand, is the dream of all those who exhibit their wares at the stand. Neuroscience suggests that the human brain and perception is highly geared to noticing movement – apparently, when we were hunter gatherers, our brains became attuned to quickly zooming in on the moving object to spear it efficiently.

An Indian stand had two dancers performing a traditional dance, something which my colleague and I felt was beyond our abilities to deliver. Footfall, but not at all costs.

Out of the Desert

Looking round the stands of our customers and sometimes competitors, I was reminded that Houston itself had sprung up from the desert like a forest of glass flowers.

The words of the poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley popped into my head:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

The lofty structures had emerged from the desert floor like mirages, and I knew that after a few days the desert would reclaim them, and the stands would be boxed up and transferred to warehouses or for disposal.

Now, people were milling around swapping business cards, the seniority of staff increasing as you moved from the outer perimeter of the stands to their centre, often a set of meeting rooms that constituted the inner sanctums of the inner sanctum of the exhibition hall. These other stands had achieved the goal of attracting footfall through lavish dinners, free beer and wine, visibly attractive staff, refrigerated drinks that foamed steam, a golf driving range, and virtual reality tours around industrial plants, cities and islands.

Being in this strange, dream-like world soon became my “new normal” — for the next few days. I would have conversations with people who were all, essentially, touting for business at the event. Over the years, I have become pretty good at shaking the hands of complete strangers and striking up a brief rapport with them. Only a very few of these “contacts” have resulted in lasting relationships.

Rather like the stands themselves, it was the hierarchies that fascinated me.  Company personnel prop up the stands wearing smart suits and armed with sheaves of brochures and business cards. Usually the female staff are clerical, although less so recently, wearing bland outfits of cream or grey, sometimes offset by company-issue high heels. Inside, as if in the inner sanctum of a church, the company executives gather to meet clients, shake hands, slap backs, and do business.

It is always familiar, in a slightly depressing way. The meetings are predictable and terribly functional. Huge amounts of money are spent on building ever bigger temples to demonstrate that you, as a business, mean business. Time is strictly allocated, with food and drink events punctuating the day like precise, military drills where the usual reserve is briefly abandoned and replaced by wide smiles and open palms.

The core of this world is entirely illusory. The bonhomie would last only for the minutes of exchange, the generous helpings of corporate largesse were carefully calculated, polite discussion on the stand was always discontinued as soon as it threatened to result in anything substantive.

It was like being in a giant Duty Free lounge. Statistics abound about the number of people who have affairs at such events, and to be honest I am not surprised. There is an attractive anonymity about the experience, and a kind of liberating lack of authenticity. The driving range was not a golf course, the cosmopolitan food was not local but had all been plastic-packed, the modernist castles or spaceships that towered around me had all been flat-packed and were made out of plywood rather than the advanced materials of Star Trek. The stomach lurch from a VR walk off the side of a skyscraper was just a knee-jerk reaction created by the optic nerve.

Virtual reality is the metaphor for such events. All the World’s a Stage. But after three days, I was yearning to see my family and children. Everything had begun to feel like a play, nothing felt solid or real. How could business be built on this foundation? It felt like a house built on sand.