I’VE BEEN OUT of place the last couple of weeks. I’ve been unsettled. I think you can guess why. Like, essentially, the other eight billion people on this planet, my life in the last fortnight has been consumed and overturned by a potent strain of virus known formally as COVID-19. In March, I was navigating the bustling nightlife of the city of my residency, one located in the heart of middle America. Today, I’m navigating the finer points of this new trend known as social distancing (apparently, you just stay as far away from people as you physically can. It’s supposed to be wild!)
I’m a young man, seemingly, a picture of robust health, asked to quarantine himself from the broader public, in his own home, like a leper. I can’t eat at a restaurant, go to the gym, or have drinks with my friends at a bar. My grocery store is completely barren of toilet paper, cereal, hand sanitizer, and ground beef. The roads are as vacant as a motel run by Norman Bates. “Stay safe and healthy” has suddenly replaced “Goodbye” as the proper way to exit a conversation. They’ve canceled March Madness. They f%*$@^g canceled March Madness! Needless to say, this has been a strange few weeks.
The month of March was supposed to be of the biggest of my life. I was rolling into the month of March in the year of our lord 2020 with Eminem’s Lose Yourself pulsing through my cranium, my head nodding, my weight rocking back and forth on the balls of my feet, my arms extending out a few air punches, a prizefighter preparing for a championship bout. I was going to crush it. I was going to make the month of March cry uncle. Then April would come, and my life would never be the same.
I could visualize myself, during my preparation, on that stage, looking relaxed in crisp blue jeans, my brightly colored dress shirt untucked, popping against the dark black background. I would run a hand through my long blonde hair as I let a powerful moment settle or as I gave the audience time to absorb a humorous joke. I was comfortable on that stage. I belonged there. On April 3rd, I was to help enlighten the world on the scourges of algorithmic bias as a speaker at TEDx Oklahoma City. Then came coronavirus.
The fact that TEDx Oklahoma City will not happen in April, in light of world events, is unsurprising. The organizers had no option but to postpone. The fact that I now have to wait until (fingers crossed) August 21st to speak at the event, is in the scheme of COVID-19 related despairs, not even registerable. It’s barely mentionable, at this point. This, considering college basketball players, both men and women, who had worked an entire season to achieve one shining moment, saw any chance at actually achieving one shining moment get extinguished, without so much as a dribble. So too, the runners who put their bodies through the trauma of training to compete in a 26.2-mile conquest of will only to watch their conquest of will get canceled. The abandoned sporting events, the terminated ceremonies, the ruined grand openings, the shuttered storefronts and schoolhouses, the impacts of this are immense and will have far reaching consequences that we cannot yet even recognize.
In the end, any despair or discouragement I felt about the postponement of TEDx Oklahoma City was washed away the moment a friend reached out to tell me that her organization was temporarily laying off herself and 75% of her company. Reality sank in. Self-pity was halted.
It’s also hard to be nostalgic for those wonderful days before this thing called social distancing when you hear of positive tests, when you read about deaths.
I HAVE MULTIPLE friends who were there. They were in the building, when the world lost its mind and any sense of normalcy ended. It happened, of all places, inside the Chesapeake Energy Arena in downtown Oklahoma City. They recall it now, my friends, with wide-eyed amazement, like they were in downtown Dallas the day the president was shot or visiting lower Manhattan on the eleventh day of September 2001. They were part of something monumental, a world-changing event.
It happened on a Wednesday night, March 11th. As one friend tells it, he was waiting for tip-off of the evening’s NBA contest between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz. The players and coaches were milling about their respective benches. Then came confusion, then the exiting of the players. Then the halftime entertainment came out to perform, long before halftime. Then Rumble, Oklahoma City’s hairy mascot, began throwing up errant shots, attempting to entertain an increasingly anxious Chesapeake crowd. Then came the announcement of the game’s postponement.
The reason for the postponement, the discovery that Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus, sent shockwaves reverberating across the world. For many, it finally hammered home the direness of the global situation. Epidemic became pandemic. Social distancing progressed from charming novelty to government mandate. People began hoarding toilet paper or hawking it for unreasonable prices on the internet. Grocery store shelves emptied. The NBA suspended its season. The world entered into quarantine. I found myself out of place….unsettled.
I AM A MAN who thrives on routine. I need order. When I don’t have it, that’s when I get into trouble. Work…. gym… dinner…. cup of tea…. sleep…. rinse… and repeat. This is how I flourish. In an alternative, my life can start to look upset: unshaven face… wrinkled clothes… messy hair…. sunken eyes… dwindling waistline. In a life of order, I cook myself a nice healthy dinner. In a life of disorder, I avoid eating until my body sputters from a lack of fuel.
I am currently living a life of disorder. It’s publicly mandated disorder. In order to protect the public health, my gym has been closed. So, I do not work out. I’m advised not to make my nightly trip to the grocery store to purchase the steak I normally grill up following my workout. Therefore, many nights, I don’t eat.
I have idle time on my hands, in which I would normally fill with socializing or community activism. But the bars and restaurants have been closed, and the nonprofit galas and conferences I was so busily preparing for have been postponed or canceled. So now, I’m binge-watching the television. I am out of balance, and it is affecting my life.
SOCIAL DISTANCING IS an odd concept. In it, we are telling healthy people, who want to interact with each other, who would otherwise be enjoying their youth and freedom, to stay home. We tell them that they are not to be in the same room with other young people, although they want to be, because it is in the best interest of the public. The international trips have been cancelled, flights grounded, borders closed. If one had the means and desire today to see the world, she would be unable to. It’s sobering, and a bit unprecedented, at least on a global scale. The world has been shut down, and none of us are really sure when it will reopen.
Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. We have technologies today, and we are all now employing them, to stay connected…to work, to loved ones, to entertainment, to education, to indispensable services. As a man who daylights as a technology consultant, my job is to help people and organizations effectively use these tools. It’s a powerful mission, one I take very seriously, especially today.
In the end, for the foreseeable future, this is reality. One is just forced to make the best of it. It does feel a little like time continues its inevitable and unstoppable march forward while our lives are now stuck in molasses. In that way, it feels like it did in 2008.
THE GREAT RECESSION, that struck a little over a decade ago, had massive impacts, not just on the economy, but on an entire generation of young people. This group even got saddled with a name: “the boomerang generation.” Young men and women were forced to move home because they carried enormous student debt and had little job prospects. This forced a generation of young people to delay getting married and having children. “Failure to launch” was no longer for the emotionally immature. It became reality for millions of people.
You could point to culprits, in 2008. We had someone to blame. There were bad guys: the mortgage lenders who handed out exorbitant loans to people who could never afford them, like tainted needles at a crackhouse, the shadow banks that exploited a lack of government regulation and tore a chainsaw through the economy, and the government who bailed them all out.
Today we can’t really point to a bad guy. There is no smoking gun behind the coronavirus. This in spite of the people who refer to coronavirus as the “China virus”, which, let’s call that what it is: a racist dog whistle that’s akin to referring to AIDS as the “gay virus” or Ebola as the “Africa virus.” When it comes to coronavirus, the only one to blame is nature.
Of course, we are human, and we need someone to blame. So, we blame nations for not shutting things down quickly enough. We blame administrations for making us ill-prepared for such a crisis. We also blame neighbors: those who didn’t “social distance” fast enough, those who hoarded toilet paper, those in the world who took coronavirus a little too lightly for some people’s liking.
We will find a scapegoat, a bad guy, but, in reality, there is none. This is a black swan event. We couldn’t have seen it coming. Pointing fingers, while cathartic, will not salvage the economy, will not reopen restaurants and gyms, will not un-lay off employees and will not, in the end, save lives. This is no one’s fault, and the only way we are going to weather this storm is if we weather it together, even if we’re socially distant.
The Great Recession may pale in comparison to the economic adversity awaiting us. I hope I am wrong. I pray I am wrong. I lived through The Great Recession, and I don’t want to live through it again. I will say it again, because it bears repeating: This is no one’s fault, and the only way we are going to weather this storm is if we weather it together.
IN THE ENTRYWAY of my house, there is a bookshelf. On this bookshelf rests a picture of my mother alongside a “chip.” This “chip” belonged to her. This AA medallion was presented to her on the anniversary of her 25th year of sobriety. This token was then presented to me upon her untimely passing about a half decade ago.
Mom was always the person I turned to when I was having a traumatic event in my life. If I made an idiot decision, time to call mom. If I was suffering through a breakup, well, let’s call mom. If I was weathering a disappointment or anxiety, she would be the one I would turn to for advice and counsel.
My mother’s wisdom didn’t come from a place of security; it came from a place of struggle. She was an alcoholic who found sobriety through an enormity of will and sacrifice. Her mountainous climb into the valley of sobriety only came as she was able to scale giant, jagged rocks of failure, self-doubt, and self-contempt. She got sober for me. She got sober for my sister. She got sober for her brothers. She got sober for herself, and so she could appreciate and enjoy the blessings God had waiting for her.
I can still vividly recall my sister and I praying with my mother on those warm Minnesota summer evenings. Recited was the Lord’s Prayer. Too was the Serenity Prayer:
God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I’m a big podcast guy. Normally, I’m a big news podcast guy. I like to stay informed. I frequent news podcasts, the feeds of Twitter, and the pages of online news magazines and blogs, while I’m comfortably (or uncomfortably) resting on my toilet. Lately, however, I have had to expel such things from my life (not the toilet, the news). The news has become nothing but dismay, panic, and alarm. Therefore, I’ve had to flush it down the toilet.
I am doing as my mom would advise me to do in this moment, “My love”, she would say, “you must worry about the things you can control. The rest you should remove from your thoughts.”
My mother gave some pretty sage advice, and now may be the perfect time to start audio-binging the Harry Potter books.
Mom would give me one more piece of advice, today. I can still hear her, her soft voice whispering the small yet powerful sentence into my eardrums, wisdom we could all use hearing today:
This too shall pass.
SPEAKING OF THE BOOKSHELF, the one I referenced earlier, the one filled by books, with ornate covers, about US presidents that my mom purchased for me because I probably mentioned to her one time that I was interested in US presidents (that was my mom), on the top of that bookshelf there is the photo of my mom and my mom’s AA 25-year sobriety chip. There is also my mom’s copy of the “Big Book”, the AA “bible” which I also inherited upon her death. Next to these things, there is a framed piece of paper. This piece of paper was handed to me on the day, a few years ago, when I decided to get baptized. On the paper, I was tasked with writing down why I wanted to get baptized. In my own barely legible scrawl I wrote down, “Because I can’t be the man I want to be without him.”
I suppose I keep all of these things in the front entryway of my home for a reason. I think I keep them there as a reminder of the type of person I want to be. In my life, I want to have the courage and heart of my mother. In my life I also want to have the courage and heart of Jesus. I may never achieve these aims, but it will not hurt to try.
EARLIER THIS MONTH I unfolded my copy of the Sunday edition of The Oklahoman, the state of Oklahoma’s most widely circulated newspaper, to see my name on the front page, above the fold. Thankfully, my name did not appear on the front page (above the fold) of the state of Oklahoma’s largest newspaper because I had committed any acts of destruction. My name appeared there because the paper’s faith editor, Carla Hinton, had reached out to me to ask my opinion about physical houses of worship being closed. It may be debatable, in the heart of the Bible Belt, that I would be the most qualified person to comment on such things, but I was grateful to the author for allowing me the opportunity to speak on the subject.
The interview reminded me of what a major deal it is to see the churches, which exist (with only slight exaggeration) on every street corner inside Oklahoma City, closed on a Sunday morning. The closing of physical houses of worship in Oklahoma City, the heart of the Bible Belt, a place where church is still close to mandatory, is a stark reminder that we are witnessing something unprecedented. Of course, it’s not just churches affected but mosques, synagogues, temples, and everything else.
During our interview, Carla and I both wondered aloud how long this would last. Would Easter be affected? How about Passover? The Seders will almost surely be virtual. They will have to be.
I am blessed to attend a church that has robust online options. Our services were livestreamed before COVID-19, so the transition to virtual services has been as smooth as it could be. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. As I told The Oklahoman, there is a hollowness in my heart. I find great comfort in my church community. I find enormous solace in its unwavering positivity, in its unyielding support of me, in its vigorous endeavors to do good in the world, to love people the way Jesus taught us to love each other. Sure, that community exists in some form online. In many ways, however, it is still not the same. It will never be.
Technology is such a useful tool. I am incredibly grateful for it, especially today. But technology cannot act as a substitute for everything. It cannot substitute for a handshake, a high five, or a hug. These things are things I will miss as the world grapples with COVID-19. No amount of technological innovation will change that.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
MY FRIEND SHANNON emailed the above to me. She created it. It’s a graphic, to place inside your mailbox to thank the postal service worker for keeping the mail moving, while much else has stopped. I liked it, so I put it on my mailbox. It is a small gesture, but today it seems like all I can do are small gestures.
I think I’m not unlike the vast majority of people who feel overwhelmed right now, who feel like there is nothing they can do. I don’t like that feeling. I am flawed in almost every conceivable way, but there is one area my parents exploited to hammer into the concrete wall that is my cranium. It’s the importance of helping, of serving others. They somehow got through to me in that arena. I don’t like to sit on the sidelines.
Because of this, on Saturday, March 21st, a day before my name appeared on the front page (above the fold) of The Oklahoman and ten days after an NBA player was found to have contracted coronavirus and the world lost its mind, I traveled south into the heart of Oklahoma City.
It was to south Oklahoma City, more specifically. I drove passed the quiet warehouses and vacant streets to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. I wanted to help, and this was the best way I knew how.
The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma serves a staggering 136,000 people every week, 37% of them are children. It doesn’t take a prophet to realize the food bank is going to become more important in the next few months, as we deal with the economic impacts of a world shuttered.
I was met at the bank by a cheery young woman who asked if I had traveled to any coronavirus “hot spots” recently or had shown any symptoms of illness. I told the woman “no” and she ushered me upstairs to wait until my shift began.
The food bank had altered its regular shifts in order to deal with social distancing protocol. Because of this, they were limiting volunteer shifts to under ten people and practicing a “six-foot distance rule.” The waiting area for volunteers was nearly empty and volunteers were asked to wash their hands rather frequently. In short, the food bank was effectively trying to manage a situation that was extraordinary, and one that was not really helping their mission to feed the vulnerable.
The small group of volunteers were moved down into the warehouse, where waiting for us were hand pallet jacks and pallets of food to be relocated around the warehouse floor like moving pieces on a giant chessboard. As I attempted to navigate the hand pallet jack into its proper position underneath a pallet, I looked as if I was a drunken cruise captain endeavoring to dock a ship in stormy seas. If I wanted to steer the pallet jack right…it went left. It was infuriating.
I soon was taught not to steer the jack like a Radio Flyer wagon, with the handle perpendicular to the ground but with the handle arrowed toward the sky and its wings outward like a bicycle handlebar. After a little while I was getting the hang of it, and the other volunteers looked at me less anxiously.
With the pallets in place, the volunteers took their positions, careful to remain a good distance away from each other. The other volunteers filled boxes with food, and I tossed the filled boxes on to empty pallets. The work was rather revitalizing. My mind cleared. My body was in motion. I was doing something, and it was ecstasy.
A few days later, the governor of Oklahoma issued a “shelter in place” order. The volunteer shifts at the regional food bank were halted all together. It was the necessary decision, also a hard one. Today, it is reality, even if it seems a bit counterintuitive, that helping means keeping your distance. That is how you help. Keep your distance, stay home, “shelter in place.” That is how you help. Yes, helping means keeping your distance…at least physical distance.
I AM A TECHNOLOGY CONSULTANT by day. But I also have a healthy skepticism of technology. I’m terrible with social media. I’ve never been on TikTok. I’d rather hold dog-eared pages of a novel than I would an e-reader. I’d rather navigate the aisles of a retail store than I would a store’s website. I prefer to talk on the phone then send a text message or Snap.
To me, there is nothing more valuable than sitting down with someone and having a conversation. There is nothing more wonderful to me than meeting a friend for lunch, a coffee, or a cocktail. This has been a challenge for me, losing that face-to-face physical interaction. But I understand we all need to do our part. This is the age of distance. But you know what is sort of funny…in the age of distance, we’ve never been closer.
I’ve uncovered my laptop camera more in the last two weeks than I have in the rest of my entire life. My phone is buzzing with Facebook messages, FaceTime requests, text messages, and audio messages from people who are asking me how I am doing, wanting to catch up. Technology is changing the way we interact with each other. It is also changing the way we are helping each other.
Here in Oklahoma, where I am currently sheltering in place, people are doing their part. Companies are giving back. As one example, Paycom’s founder and CEO Chad Richison recently pledged an eye-popping $2,000,000 commitment to the Oklahoma Regional Food Bank while writing “We are all in this together, and together we will get through this.”
In Oklahoma City, Hope Culture created Hopelahoma, an event that live streamed over two weeks of concerts, featuring local artists and creators, on Facebook, with donations and the proceeds from t-shirt purchases going directly to critical local charities.
Healthy young people are leaving notes on their neighbors’ porches, offering their assistance if these neighbors, more susceptible to COVID-19, need medicine or groceries picked up or delivered.
Late in March and into April, people used their Facebook accounts to plead to their friends not to go to the grocery store in the first week of April in order for those who recently received food stamps to be offered the opportunity to collect critical supplies without the grocery store shelves being barren.
People are creating thank you notes for postal workers and emailing the notes to friends for them to share.
Banks are deferring mortgage payments. Cable companies are eliminating data usage overages.
At my company, where I daylight as a technology consultant, we’re trying to help leaders manage the new reality of remote teams.
Even hacking groups pledged (if you take them at their word) to not send ransomware attacks to health and medical organizations during the pandemic.
We will get through this…but we will only get through this together.
I AM LIVING A LIFE of disorder. I can’t go to the gym, or eat at a restaurant, or meet up with my friends for happy hour. I can’t have dinner with my parents, and they live down the street.
Yet, I am living a life of disorder not because the government told me to, but because I choose to. I could choose to binge watch television and let my beard grow scraggly, my waistline to deteriorate, my eyes to get more sunken. I could allow lethargy and depression to overtake me. I could choose this life of disorder. Or I could choose something different.
Maybe I will reach out to an old friend and ask how they’re doing. Maybe I will pick up a book or start working on that project I’ve been putting off because I never had the time. Maybe today I will make a difference, only it will be from my dining room table. Maybe today, I don’t need the gym. Maybe, I will go for a run (being sure to keep a safe distance from anyone I might encounter along the way). I will put on my headphones. I won’t turn to the news. No, because it’s filled with things I can’t control. Instead I will listen to Harry Potter or Lauren Daigle. My legs will start pumping, and my mom’s voice will whisper softly in my ear.
This too shall pass.