This week marks the one-year anniversary since the launch of my job search. What’s the status now? Well, so far no offers, but I’ve got a couple possibilities in the works.
To be clear, it hasn’t been one year of intense, continuous effort. Unlike other long-term projects in the past, I have not given this thing everything I’ve got. There were several extended periods when I did nothing at all on the job front, for as long as six weeks at a time.
I may have been more motivated had the situation been dire, but fortunately the financial pressure on me was close to none. Nothing’s going to happen if I don’t have a job. Nobody’s going to stave. Our bills will still be paid. If my career matched my true calling in life then I’d be more invested in this thing, but I’ll save that riskier and less lucrative career change for a couple years down the road.
Normally I’m not negatively motivated, like someone who says they need a personal trainer to get them in shape. But negative pressure seems almost required in a job search, as it’s an activity that almost no one would voluntarily pursue.
I suppose there was some negative pressure on me, in the form of wanting to have more flexibility with my time and greater well-being.
My only real goals have been to do something new and interesting in a job that allows remote work. I want more flexible working conditions and I want to move my family to the States. The job search is unpleasant and time-consuming, but just like in Shawshank Redemption, I’m crawling through this shitty sewer pipe to reach the next stage in life.
With that said, here are the stats, the most important first.
Job Offers: Zero
Looking back, there are a multitude of reasons I haven’t crossed the finish line yet, but I’ll examine these at the end.
I take my time with job applications, customizing my resume and cover letter for each. The process usually takes about ninety minutes per application, though some of them required personality assessments that took a couple of hours or more. At ninety minutes each, this comes to 120 hours total.
Oh the Research
Over the course of one year I dumped at least 200 hours into researching companies, browsing job postings, and training to update my skills.
The combined 320 hours of effort scored me 25 interviews with 16 different organizations. This resulted in 18 initial interviews (some were screenings with the same organization, different roles). A couple of times the initial interview turned out to be a full-on technical ambush, but usually it was a screening talk with a recruiter. A few times I chose not to pursue the process after the initial interview, due to bad vibes over the people and-or organization, but more often I’d receive a rejection email within a week of our first talk.
I made it past the screening stage 7 times, for 2nd or 3rd interviews with 5 different organizations.
As of this writing I’ve got one job pending decision after a third interview last week, and this one’s good. I’m hoping for the best.
This number includes 21 rejections with no interview (which in most cases probably meant my application made it past the scanning algorithms, only to be rejected by an actual human being); 10 rejections after the initial interview; and 3 rejections after a second or third interview. The other 46 applications got no response.
Believe it or not these are decent numbers. According to one career site:
“Anywhere from 10% to 20% (positive response) is considered average and 20% to 30% is a good application to interview ratio.”
(18 initial interviews from 80 applications is 21%.)
Of all 80 job applications, how many of these were for jobs that I’d do if I had all the money in the world? How many were based on pure, honest interest alone? Maybe one or two.
And therein lies my greatest challenge. If I ask why I didn’t seal the deal on any of these interviews then I’d have to conclude my biggest challenge was that I didn’t care enough.
Aside from my mental handicap of apathy, there were a few other challenges that came into play.
This job search comes with certain built-in disadvantages, like being on the other side of the world from where I’m trying to get a job. Sometimes I have to speak with people during business hours in the U.S. Eastern time zone, which is almost exactly my normal sleeping hours. I’ve crawled out of bed at wee hours of the morning for interviews, or stayed up late at night. Pacific or Mountain Time zones aren’t much better. Seven AM my time is the end of the business day in Salt Lake.
Some organizations still insist on contacting job candidates by phone, and they’re not going to call a number overseas. I have a U.S. phone, just so I can put the number on resumes, but it’s in the States. I can work around the annoying phone issue by getting a number and calling interviewers on VOIP, but the coordination and time zone difference are still a pain.
Luck played a part too, some good, but mostly bad. There were technical problems that prevented the use of video in a third and possibly final interview, for example, which probably cost me that job. Hell, even natural disasters conspired against me. There was an earthquake in Salt Lake on the morning when I was scheduled to “meet the team” for a technical interview. They cancelled, apparently spooked by the event (which happened to be just as COVID in America was heating up). They never replied to me again.
Two other companies discontinued the hiring process in the height of the pandemic.
COVID was also the source of miraculous luck, as suddenly every organization in the world was working remote, and willing to hire based on video call alone.
What other challenges were there? Rejection notices are never specific, so sometimes it’s difficult to know what lessons to learn. I could’ve been turned down for a number of reasons in any of these interviews. It’s anyone’s guess.
Sometimes I applied to jobs for which I was overqualified. I didn’t mind taking a salary cut if it meant having flexibility and learning something new. I’m not sure I always did a good job of explaining why I had no interest in climbing up the technical ladder of success. For this reason I’d rather be under-qualified than overqualified for most jobs.
There may have been some ageism involved, but honestly I never detected this to be the case. If anything, some interviewers may have been spooked over potential costs, suspecting they’d have to pay too much for senior experience in a less-than-senior role.
Speaking of costs, I learned early on that organizations can be turned off by job candidates who are not local, because they don’t want to pay moving expenses. An international expatriation can cost fifty grand or more, but in my family’s case the expense will be a small fraction of that, as we aren’t taking any big stuff like furniture or appliances. So I got in the habit of letting interviewers know up front that I don’t expect any extra compensation for the move.
I may have zero offers to show for all my efforts, but there’s change in the air. I can feel it. Or maybe it’s the sudden cool weather signalling the end of summer, and the approaching typhoon?
One thing’s for sure: looking back years from now, scoring a job in tumultuous 2020 with all my unique challenges will look like a heroic feat.
UPDATE: five minutes later…
Just checked email after publishing this post. After one year of half-ass effort, this journey might finally be over. I have a pending offer. Well, how about that?
UPDATE: five days later…
It was a rather tense five days of working out the details of compensation and benefits, but I’m very satisfied with the final result. I’ll receive the official offer letter early next week. My current location might present some challenges with the logistics and timing of starting the job, but we’ll get everything worked out.
This is the third (and final?) installment of the Career Metamorphosis series. See also: Career Metamorphosis Part 1 & Part 2.
How is it possible to score a job without having the required experience? It’s the problem faced by recent college graduates, and it’s a problem I face in my current job search, twenty-five years into my career. As a recent college grad with no experience, I attempted to lie, but succeeded with luck. Now, my approach is more complex.
Experience Dilemma (1996)
Twenty-five years ago I lied in an attempt to get my first tech job as a support technician at the CompUSA call center. I had some experience fixing computers. Okay, a single computer, my own, and I frequently failed at this effort. But the job qualifications were way beyond anything I had to offer.
Still, I knew with total certainty that I could kick ass at the job if given the chance. I wouldn’t recommend lying to anyone, but this was how I justified it back then.
CompUSA ignored me for weeks after I applied for the job, but I had a friend on the inside who elevated my resume to the top of the stack. I got an interview. Twenty-five years ago I still didn’t feel totally comfortable having adult conversations, let alone communicating in a serious business context. It’s funny to think about now, but back then it was awkward as hell. Some people are effective communicators upon graduating university. I was not. By this time I had spent a year doing customer service at Boring Office Job One (BOJO), but before that I had spent the maximum amount of time avoiding adulthood and the so-called real world.
My initial interview with CompUSA was uncomfortable for both the interviewer and me, but it wasn’t as bad as some of the humiliating train wrecks I had endured in the previous two years. This was where the lying happened. I exaggerated my experience fixing PC’s.
Then came the technical interview. I’m not sure what I was thinking. This was information technology. Lying did not work in situations where solutions were either right or wrong. My answers were so half-ass the interviewer cut it short.
To complete this painful ritual I was then asked to take an assessment test (a practice test for the industry-standard A+ certification for PC hardware repair, as it would turn out). Most of the questions were multiple choice with four choices. I guessed on most of them, somehow scoring under twenty-five percent. On average, a chimp would have done better on this test. The technician who escorted me through the process shrugged and said something like, “don’t call us, we’ll (probably never) call you”.
Just then my friend happened to be walking by. He took the printed assessment test results, disposed of the incriminating evidence, and escorted me out. Later he got me hired and brought me into his group. It was my first tech job. I was part of the team!
I may have started as the most incompetent employee CompUSA call center had ever hired, but I was determined to disprove the imposter syndrome that hung over my head. I devoured new problems and collaborated with other technicians, discussing various tricks of the trade. Within a year I became one of the most awesome technicians that place had ever seen. I received a Technician of the Year award at a ceremony to commemorate the opening of a new call center, attended by over a hundred call center staff.
Of course, social capital is very important, especially when you’re first starting out. For me, having social capital in the right place at the right time was a stroke of luck so improbable that it seemed miraculous.
I learned that it’s never a good idea to lie in an interview, even if you’re a master of deception. Lying might boost experience by +1, but it comes with a penalty of (at least) -1 to both personality and luck (bad karma). People will sense when you’re not telling the truth.
Experience Dilemma (2020)
Looking for a job with twenty-five years’ experience under my belt is way easier than starting with no skills at all, but surprisingly it’s no guarantee of success.
“Twenty-five years’ experience” doesn’t mean much in an industry fueled by rapid change. Employers need someone who can solve problems with the technology they’re using now. There’s never going to be a time when I can say I have twenty-five experience doing exactly what they need me to do. The technology changes too quickly for that to be possible. In fact it’s rare that a candidate will have even five years’ experience doing all the things a job posting wants. This is partly because individual technologies evolve quickly, but also because it’s there are just so many more technologies today than there were a couple decades ago.
“Twenty-five years” can also scare employers, suggesting that I’m set in my ways or over the hill. All the job search advice I’ve seen says to omit any mention of experience that’s more than ten years old. Fair enough. Most of the technology I worked with ten years ago is obsolete. At best, twenty-five years’ experience translates into good technical wherewithal, a broad understanding that allows me to see the most likely troubleshooting paths, and to learn on the fly.
Employers want to see a job change every two to three years, indicating ambition and a desire to stay challenged with new tech. This is weird because a long tenure at a company used to be a good thing, indicating loyalty and dedication to the job. This year I got a compliment from an interviewer on my long tenure at the only two places I had worked between CompUSA and now, and I got the feeling he was old school.
Job recruiters always want to know how many years’ experience you have with a certain technology. I understand what they’re getting at, but in many ways these types of questions don’t match the real world. The real test comes when you speak with someone who knows the tech.
For example, I started working with SQL Server in the year 2000. Does that equal twenty years of experience? It depends on how you break it down. The technology has changed so much since then that only certain core knowledge (e.g., T-SQL) and general understanding (ACID, RDBMS concepts, e.g.) are still relevant. In some ways ten years’ experience might even be better than twenty, if the candidate has shown resistance to adapt.
Then there’s the problem of how to calculate years. Using the example of SQL, some years I worked intensely with the product, but other years just a few days per week, or not at all. What is the quality of experience? For example, I’ve used some type of server software almost every week in the past twenty years, but some features I might only have to mess with once per year, or never.
My answer to all these weird problems? It’s a fifty-page document (yes, another journal) that I call Metamorph.
Metamorph isn’t lying. It’s to help me remember what I’ve done.
Metamorph is a journal of every technology I’ve worked with, with an elevator speech for each. Interviewers want details. They want to know you can solve problems now.
It should be good enough to say “I can’t remember how to do that, but if you let me do some research…” It’s very weird this response is unacceptable in an interview, it’s exactly what you’d end up doing if given the task on the job. There are some things I did with a high degree of proficiency just a couple months ago, but I can’t remember the exact details of the top of my head. Metamorph is to help me remember, to keep things fresh in my mind.
So, we’ll see if my Metamorph strategy works. This morning I had a technical interview for a job that calls for experience working with technology I’ve never worked with in a production setting. I’ve played around with it quite a bit in my own sandbox, but as for real-world experience? Zilch. I was honest about this in the interview. All I could do was express my enthusiasm for the technology, and focus on my strengths. With any luck I’ll get an offer based on deep technical wherewithal and an ability to quickly learn.
This is an autobiographical account of a miraculous incident that got me my first job in the field of Information Technology, set in Dallas, 1996. It’s part of a journal I call the Brief History of Economic Me.
The modem dials each number in quick succession, opening a phone dialog of high-pitched squeals and the alternating tones of a sad slot machine, which I have come to believe is what computers sound like when they talk to each other. This mysterious custom of the digital world should conclude with a blast of comforting static, which I like to imagine as a torrent of twenty-eight thousand bytes (yes, bytes) of data surging through the phone line, except this time there’s no static. The screech-dee-dong handshake continues.
I wait a minute, hit cancel and retry. Same result.
The next obvious move is a reboot. My desktop beast trudges through its slothful routine of beeps, floppy disk drive honk, and internal whirling while cryptic command-line hieroglyphics scroll down the screen.
Another try. Still no connection. I thrust myself out of the chair and pace the flattened carpet of my bedroom, cursing, fists clenched.
Scruffy the arthritic mutt wakes from his nap under the desk, gives me one worried look, and waddles out the door. He can’t comprehend the depths of my frustration. This is no mere computer problem; it’s a mockery of my life.
My dad stops at the door holding a folded Auto Trader mag and a mega-cup of Diet Coke, half-awake after a Saturday afternoon nap. “Everything alright?”
“Computer stuff,” I grumble above the continuing screech-dee-dong, in the manner of a teenager shooing a parent away from his room, except I’m twenty-six.
Two years have passed since my encounter with The Man in the Gray Suit and his words still haunt me: get a job, any job. Make money. But merely making money isn’t good enough. Work needs to be interesting, too. Otherwise what was the point? My temp job at the credit card company is the exact opposite of interesting, but it pays the bills. It’s a life puzzle as perplexing as the guts of the computer here in my room.
I imagine computer repair as the antithesis of office temp jobs: something new, interesting and lucrative. Something that keeps me separate from soulless suits. I also imagine myself as someone who knows about computers, just like I imagine how a modem works and what it sounds like when computers talk. Only problem is there’s a light-year of space between what I imagine and reality, which is made all the more clear by computer meltdowns like this.
Gray Suit promised lightning would strike. All it takes is focus, he said. On any given day my focus is blown on computer games and other distractions to drown out the drudgery of time at the office, but I’m ready to focus now. I want to fix my life, which means fixing this computer. There is no walking away. If I get my foot in the door somewhere I can fake it to make it. My bolt from the blue is long overdue.
My first idea is to find the config.sys boot file. I open it and stare at the code like a dog who has stumbled upon an open algebra text and make some changes. But then I’m spooked by memories of my last self-inflicted disaster and close the file unsaved.
Next I shut down the computer, remove the cover from the PC case and take a look under the hood, as if it’s the ‘64 Olds I drove in high school, broken down on the side of the road. I wouldn’t recognize the modem if the phone cord wasn’t plugged into the back panel. There is dust, which I do my best to clean up, knowing it won’t help.
I remind myself there’s no shame in calling for help. Learning something new would be a small victory, but knowledge is hard to come by these days. On the odd chance someone is willing to help me, they’re looking to get me off the phone fast, not to teach a man to fish. I unplug the modem phone cord from the wall-jack and plug the phone back in, considering my options.
Keith and Dave are the computer arch-mages among my group of friends; but if I ask too many questions they’ll know I’m trying to learn. This exceeds my humility threshold right now. I’m the broke college grad who studied philosophy, and they’re making big money with no college degree.
Instead I call the local computer shop with the intent of hustling some free advice from a random geek, just a hint to point me in the right direction. But it’s soon apparent the once-humble shop has undergone a corporate metamorphosis, meaning they now charge for advice. The technician transfers me to call center support.
The inane cheerfulness of the phone tree voice amplifies the stress in my nerves. No, I do not have a receipt and no I cannot remember where I purchased the modem or when. My only option is paid support over the phone. This feels like total defeat and I’m thinking the awkwardness of calling Keith or Dave might be a better choice.
My finger is on the button to hang up when an actual woman comes on the line to take my credit card information. She has a thick Spanish accent, telling me the call has gone straight to Guatemala, and from this alone I sense the whole thing – the computer problem, my life, everything – is moving in the exact opposite direction I want it to go.
I give Maria my payment info anyway, with the same resignation I’d have if she was border patrol asking for my passport, and I wait on hold with the feel-good music again, which succeeds in having the reverse effect on my mood. I realize the phone I’m using is plugged into the wall-jack the modem used, making it impossible to troubleshoot the problem at hand.
At that moment an eloquent technician comes on the line and explains the pricing and terms with a faux-British accent, sounding like a worker at a Renaissance festival explaining the rules of an axe-throwing game of skill. Some hope returns. This is no third-world call center. Even better, I know this guy. “Victor?”
“Dex?” He uses my old call sign, not heard since my days of fantasy gaming and laser tag.
I go with it, and explain my problem with haste.
Victor cuts in, tells me to meet him after his shift ends at eleven, in the Chili’s parking lot across the street from the call center, so I don’t have to pay. Bring the computer he says. He’ll have a look.
Several hours later Victor concludes: “Could be the modem was zapped during last night’s electrical storm.”
Lightning. I should have thought of that.
Then he asks: “You got a resume? We’re hiring.” It’s a random opportunity, a bolt from the blue.
In 1994 I had zero contacts, zero experience, zero personality, and very little luck. I also had zero interest in working in an office. So how did I end up with a corporate career?
In the featured image I’m holding up the classified section of the Dallas Morning News. Smart phones wouldn’t be around for another twelve years, but if this selfie had been taken with multi-megapixel clarity, then we might have enough detail to pick out the date. Suffice to say it was June 1994, the pre-internet age, when people searched “want” ads in newspapers to find jobs. The tech back then may have been different, but the journey I took in the mid-90’s is pertinent to first-time job-seeking today.
The Big Something
When this photo was taken I was twenty-five, a year out of college with no real job. I had studied mostly philosophy, ending up with a degree in political science, and was discovering that the knowledge I had gained from these fascinating subjects was hard to monetize. My dad was nice enough to let me crash at his place until I could conjure some monetary magic, and I’d end up staying there for years.
I worked a part-time gig driving vehicles from one car dealership to another, from Dallas to other towns in Texas and surrounding states. All this driving gave me way too much time to think. There was this overwhelming pressure to do “something” with my life, but what?
At some point I started using a tape recorder to preserve my ramblings on these long drives. My training in philosophy may have been useless when it came to finding a job, but it had taught me how to organize my thoughts. I transcribed many of these recordings in a philosophical journal called “Income,” much of which I posted online.
Come to think of it, I was blogging before blogging existed. I crafted my own website using a simple text editor, just for fun.
One question I kicked around a lot was whether a job was unavoidable. Yes, I needed money to survive. Freedom was also a big theme for me. I possessed a strong desire to be free of debt. (In an elaborate effort to delay the decision of what to do with my life I had spent half a year studying Italian at a language school in Tuscany, from which I still had a “whopping” $1,800 credit card debt.) But did I really need a job to meet my financial goals? More importantly, did I want a job? Instinct told me NO. Hell, common sense told me NO. Was I going to spend the rest of my life doing something I didn’t want to do?
Bewilderment shows up loud and clear in my transcripts. I act as if I’m on track to do something big with my life, but my professional goals are hilariously vague:
“My goal is to find a self-sustaining, entry-level, administrative position at an organization with international interests.”
My Income Journal, 1994
Self-sustaining? I suppose that meant a job that would allow me to break even, pay bills. A quarter century later I take this for granted, but back then it was a big deal. At the time, only a couple of my peers had managed to reach such a lofty level of professional success.
“Administrative” was a word that I used to mean professional, anything that wasn’t manual labor. The “content and product” of the business I worked for mattered, too, but this was another vague guideline. Basically, I didn’t want to work for any business that was uncool.
International interests? That included pretty much every corporation in the world.
So with these goals I might as well have been searching for anything. I was caught in a catch-22 of not knowing where I wanted to go because I was following a map that was blank.
“Part of the problem is lack of information. I really don’t know enough about what’s out there to make the best decision.”
My Income Journal, 1995
The pressure to do “something” was coming from society, but also from my mom, who of course was part of society, but who was also a vice president at a corporation based in Denver. She wanted me to move to Colorado and look for a job up there. My mom very much had the attitude of “suck it up and be a businessperson”. I know she wanted the best for me, but her vision of success did not suit me at all. She was one of those people who thought working for a corporation was the best thing ever, though things weren’t all that great in her own professional life. I noted in the income journal that she seemed to hate her job, and “despite the group therapy arranged by (her company), she and others at the office are hating life.”
At one point I considered joining the military, just to avoid the burden of making a decision about what this big “something” was going to be. The pressure from my mom must’ve reached a point of unbearable irritation, because moving to Denver became my absolute last choice, even lower priority than enlisting in the military at twenty-five.
In January of 1995 I took a part-time office job at an import-export business owned by an Italian family. They had first emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to New York City, and then to Dallas-Fort Worth. This work paid even less than my car dealership gig, but at least it resembled professional work, and I could put it on my resume. It also allowed me to speak Italian during the day. In general the job itself sucked, but it was more or less an internship, bumping up my experience from zero to zero point one.
Meanwhile I kept looking for a real job.
By June of 1995, a year after my official job search had begun, I had made an estimated “seven hundred phone calls” and had “mailed over two hundred resumes,” resulting in a handful of embarrassing interviews and zero jobs. (I guess these were the days when you could call a company directly to check on the status of a job application.)
After a year of effort I was left with this brilliant spark of wisdom:
“It’s strange, but I find myself working very diligently to locate a job that I’m not sure I even want.”
My Income Journal, 1995
Twenty-five years later I can still relate.
The Big Trap
After a year of job search failure and frustration I flew to California and embarked on what would be a life-changing backpacking trip in the High Sierras, with my brother, and another dude who went by the name of Hound Dog. It was July of 1995.
This ended up being much more than a vacation. It was a spiritual sojourn in nature, during which I stopped thinking so much about what society expected and started applying more introspection into what I wanted to do.
On the flight back from Reno I recorded this comment:
“I came remarkably close to joining the Navy, which, at this point, kind of scares the hell out of me.”
My Income Journal, 1995
If only I knew that fifteen years later I’d start working overseas with the Navy, and this would evolve into a very big chunk of my career!
I returned to Dallas and wiped all my previous goals. Instead, I’d focus on three things that came naturally to me: “creativity (writing), freedom (nature), and adventure (international)”.
This was the beginning of a period in my life that some of my less-accomplished slacker friends would refer to as my “rise to success”. (Insert the 1980’s “Eye of the Tiger” Rocky theme song.) I went for peak physical condition, running daily and lifting weights. I maintained fierce focus and ruthless discipline, with an eye on getting my life on track. From the outside it may have seemed like I was training for what most people considered “success,” but in reality my motivation was unique. As I’d write years later in another journal, Brief History of Economic Me:
“Money motivated me, as I lacked it in a big way, but the hottest fire in me burned to get society off my back. I wanted to build a space between me and the world.”
Brief History of Economic Me, 2016
Who was this “society” anyway? To me this was the source of all greater expectations and obligations, the most traveled path in life. Society enforced all the bullshit you were supposed to do.
I began looking at my future in terms of income opportunities, not as a mere search for a job.
“My conclusion is to listen to my heart, and to make decisions with spiritual eyes (not so logical). It is something I have never truly done, but I need to start now. Otherwise I will find it increasingly harder to break free of the trap that such a vast majority of our society find themselves in.”
My Income Journal, 1995
My horizons broadened with this new world view. I entertained the idea of beginning a carpentry apprenticeship, as I valued independence and I liked building things. I imagined running a business that restored old houses. (An endeavor that still appeals to me today.)
“By last Wednesday, the 16th of August, I had grown confident of my plan to move to California, pay off my debts then put myself in a position to start my own small business enterprise. I talked to my mom about how I had become disenchanted with the idea of working in the typical corporate environment because of the sheer lack of spiritual content. It seemed that I had talked her into it, and she even sent me literature on outdoor organizations to help me pursue employment.”
My Income Journal, 1995
The next morning, Thursday, August 17th, 1995, I got a call from someone named Missy at Resource Staffing in Carrollton, Texas, to discuss a job at SeaLand, a global import-export company (this fit roughly into the category of “international” in my triad of new goals).
I had already failed to impress SeaLand in three previous interviews. The fourth interview was a failure, too. I didn’t get the job, but the next week Missy called back about a low-level clerical job at (I’ll just call it Boring Office Job One, or BOJO for short), which I accepted. It was the kind of thing where you just showed up to work, no interview involved. My department was a bunch of middle-aged women who took frequent smoke breaks, along with an older gay guy who was crazy about cats.
“All of this intense discipline fortified my anti-social, loser self with just enough courage to set foot in an office and work the lowliest temp job in the world.”
Brief History of Economic Me, 2016
Eventually BOJO offered me a permanent position, at a cool $20,100 per year (around $34,000 in 2020 dollars). Again I accepted, by now hooked on the steady trickle of cash.
I paid off my credit card balance a few months later, and would remain debt-free for life.
With that financial milestone out of the way I began feeling the “sheer lack of spiritual content” involved in processing paperwork and calling other bored office workers on the phone. I was making some money, but failing on all of my goals.
The Big Break
By the spring of ’96 I had been at BOJO for the better part of a year, and already the endless cascade of Monday-through-Friday weeks was killing my soul.
In the evenings after work I fought off the inevitable soul-death by writing about nature. Over the course of several months I wrote and revised a 25,000-word account of my recent adventures in the High Sierras. The theme was (ironically) “the courage to pursue freedom”. My corporate job didn’t afford me the freedom to spend much time in actual nature, but I could at least experience it vicariously through my own written words.
Even today the “Tahoe Journal” is a pretty good read. It was the longest piece I had written at the time. This too went on my prehistoric blog.
But with “Tahoe” complete, I wasn’t inspired to write anything else.
In the summer of ’96 I began a new off-hours routine that would end up changing the course of my life. Every night I came home from the soul-sucking office, went for a run, and retreated to my room. (Yeah, I still lived with my dad.) There I engaged in a secret hobby. (No, it wasn’t porn.) I spent nights dismantling my computer, swapping out hardware, and – when luck was with me – getting the thing to run again.
One tech-heavy sentence for the initiated: these were the days of Windows 3.1 and DOS, setting hardware jumpers for system resource use, and configuring arcane boot files like the config.sys and autoexec.bat.
There was no internet to guide me in these endeavors, only advice from friends. I was way out of my league. At least I had the foresight to save my journals to floppy disk. More than once I accidentally wiped my hard drive clean.
I’m not sure why I did all this. It wasn’t future job training – that much was for sure. Something about it satisfied my curiosity and meticulous nature. Maybe it was the occasional victory. Troubleshooting PC hardware issues involved mostly angst and frustration, but the elation of fixing something was sweet indeed.
The important thing to note is that I didn’t engage in this geeky pastime because I thought it would get me a job. In fact I did it because it felt like flipping the middle finger to the very concept of a job.
Sure, I knew it could lead to a career. A couple of friends of mine – the ones who had managed to attain the “self-sustaining” lofty level of success – were making good money in the blossoming field of computers, double what I made, and without college degrees.
But for me this was just a weird, masochistic hobby. It appealed to me naturally, and it was something I liked to do. Like the primitive blog I had created with a simple text editor, I did it for fun.
So playing dangerously with computer hardware changed the course of my life, eventually getting me “the big something,” which happened to be a career in IT. Did it lead to everlasting job satisfaction and good times? No, it did not. But overall it led to a decent compromise with the Man.
Two and a half years after that blurry selfie, I was safely above zero in every category needed to start a career. I had acquired a few contacts, and my experience working in a professional setting was at level one. My business personality was starting to come around, too, thanks to all the mind-numbing customer service I had done at BOJO. I had contacts, experience, and personality, but what about luck?
Within a couple months I would get smacked in the face by the most miraculous luck imaginable. But this luck would have gone unnoticed had I not learned that valuable lesson in the High Sierras. Some might say that luck happens when the stars are aligned, but sometimes luck happens when we get ourselves aligned with the stars. In other words, we start applying more introspection into what comes naturally to us, and ignore what society expects. After that it’s just a matter of paying attention, and seizing what the universe throws our way.
Recent college graduates and I have something in common: we’re both trying to score jobs that require experience we don’t have. No matter who you are, you really have to fake it to make it, for almost any job you want.
Every job seeker knows the deal. You need four things going for you to get hired in the corporate world:
SOCIAL CAPITAL Contacts and connections, someone on the inside. A lot of times this trumps even experience. An internal candidate or someone referred by a current employee is almost always going to be hired before anyone from the outside.
EXPERIENCE Experience can be a tricky beast in a rapidly-expanding, ever-changing industry like Information Technology. It’s always best to have more experience, of course, but for experienced candidates there’s a paradoxical fine line between having too much experience and not enough.
PERSONALITY Charm can sometimes trump experience, too. If the hiring manager “feels” good about you then you have a good chance of getting hired. We’re all human. That’s just how it works. Personality can mean anything from outright deception to good salesmanship, or a combination of both. A little bit of salesmanship is always needed in a job interview, in the form of “you have problems to solve and I have solutions” type of talk. Some people have so much charisma that they can sneak into a job by simply lying. This was the case with a guy named McSquiggins, who will forever be immortalized as the god of deception in the personal pantheon of imposters I’ve encountered in my career. This is rare in industries like IT, where it’s blatantly obvious when ideas either work or they don’t, but it does happen.
LUCK Luck is when the gods of employment smile favorably on you for reasons totally out of your control. It’s an epic role of the dice to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. For example, the favored candidate decides to withdraw her application; or you’re on the other side of the planet, there’s a global pandemic, and suddenly in-person interviews are unheard of and video interviewing is the thing to do. Hooray!
So, it’s all about contacts, experience, personality, and luck.
As a recent college grad, getting a corporate job seemed about as impossible as booking a trip to Mars. I rated laughably low in each category. Let’s take a look at my character sheet circa 1994.
I started with zero business contacts. I went to university in Colorado and moved back to Texas, my home state. There, my only friends were slackers who hadn’t done much with their lives. On top of that, I didn’t want any business contacts. I’m an introvert, so the process of making connections seemed lame.
My business experience was of course zero.
Personality was most definitely something I could not count on to get me hired. In fact it was an extreme handicap. My anxiety in interviews made others uncomfortable. At that time I lacked self-esteem and didn’t really know how to talk.
Luck, well, that was out of my control. Or was it?
In the next post I’m going to turn the dial back to 1994 and explore my so-called “rise to success”.
Last Thursday I woke around five in the morning with chest pain. Eventually I’d attribute it to a combination of:
having slept weirdly on my side (pulling a muscle),
“air conditioner disease” (fungus and cold dry air from the A/C above the bed),
and possibly a seasonal allergen;
…but I had never experienced this peculiar brand of discomfort. It gave me real concern.
Another overarching cause of my condition was very likely mental and spiritual,
4. “Monday through Friday Forever” disease, a result of having burned ten hours per week for the past ten years in the effort to transport my body to and from the place where I was required to exist in exchange for money. On a deep level this was my body, brain, and soul telling me I needed a break.
To get this peculiar brand of discomfort checked out, I rode the bike a mile in the heat of the summer afternoon to the doctor near Hase station, on the Daibutzu (Big Buddha) street. Riding a bike two miles round-trip with chest pain may not have been the wisest move, but the warm, humid air soothed my lungs, even if my chest and left shoulder were still sore. This told me it was at least partially a musculature issue, and I felt a little better by the time I reached the doctor’s office.
Inside I wore a mask, of course, but curiously the doctor did not. I liked this doctor. He was a Star Wars fan. There was a big Yoda in the examination room. The doctor wore Michael Jackson parachute pants. I explained to him that for several weeks I had been struggling with a dry cough and gunk in my throat – not like flu phlegm, but really sticky stuff that had me clearing my throat all the time. It persisted the week after we had had the air conditioners cleaned. For the past month I had also felt fatigued, burned-out, and run down, again, the “Monday Through Friday Forever” disease.
The doctor concluded that I had an infection in my lungs, but it wasn’t influenza. He gave me a prescription for what would turn out to be an ineffective pain killer, and directions to get COVID testing later that night. The doctor wanted to rule out COVID before prescribing anything else.
I didn’t think I had COVID. My “fever” was one degree above normal, and this was likely due to my bike ride exertion in the saucy afternoon heat. I didn’t have any of the usual symptoms. Still, I was curious about the COVID testing procedure and agreed to check it out.
My appointment for COVID testing was at 20:30, at Kamakura City Hall. I was given detailed instructions on how to prepare and what to expect. The payment (26,280 yen) needed to be paid in exact change, cash and coins, sealed in a Ziploc bag. I was to look for someone with a flashlight in the parking lot, bringing payment and the paperwork from the Star Wars doctor, keeping a distance of twelve feet.
For whatever reason the whole process was shrouded in secrecy. The Kamakura municipal government was taking measures to make the testing as discreet as possible. So as to not alarm the locals? I wasn’t sure.
At around 20:20 I rode the bike down to City Hall, which is on the wooded grounds formerly occupied by the Emperor’s summer estate. It was adjacent to Onari Shogakko (Onari elementary school), my older son’s favorite place. The night air was humid and smelled of old vegetation. I stopped before entering the parking lot and put on a mask.
Sure enough there was someone to meet me in front of City Hall, a woman with an orange flashlight wand, like something used by air traffic controllers. She called out my name when I approached, “Waito-san?” and pointed to where I could park the bike.
Further away there was another light-wand individual beckoning me forth, and then another after him. Keeping their distance, they herded me through the darkness, down a long ramp leading to the back side of City Hall. Here there was a small parking area, brightly illuminated by flood lamps, with a stool placed out in the open. The whole area was enclosed by concrete walls six meters high with vines hanging down. An older guy approached out of the bright light. He was dressed as a physician, with white lab coat, face mask, goggles, visor, and gloves. Were all Japanese doctors gray-haired men? He asked me to sit on the stool, so that’s what I did. The whole scene looked like a place where someone might get interrogated, tortured, or killed by cold, sadistic scientists; but I was amused by the whole thing and feeling healthy after having taken a long nap.
There was a small table about five meters from where I sat on the stool, and a small Japanese-sized van another five meters beyond that. The engine was running. There were some professional-looking people sitting at tables on the other side of the van, but I couldn’t see what they were doing. The old physician yelled over and asked that I place my sealed Ziploc bag with payment and paperwork in the tray on the little table, so I got up and put the stuff where he asked. He waited until I was safely back at the stool before approaching the table. He sprayed down the Ziploc bag with something, and then carried it away, handling it like it was the most toxic thing in the world. A few minutes later a small older woman came within shouting distance and asked me to go to the back side of the little van, where there was another stool.
The back window of the van had two circles cut out of the glass. A pair of long rubber gloves protruded from the circles, sealed to protect the inside of the van. Inside, a young woman sat at the back window with her hands in the gloves, a testing swab pinched between two rubber fingers. She motioned for me to sit on the stool with the other rubber glove. She wore a mask and visor in addition to being inside a sealed little van, but despite her face coverings I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was amused, too. I tilted my head back and she inserted the swab. It went deep. I swore she touched brain. Afterwards I was asked to return to the first stool. A minute later the old physician came back and said I could go. I asked when I’d get the results, and he said the next morning. Good enough.
The next day I was feeling well-rested and somewhat back to normal, aside from the mild irritation of occasionally clearing the gunk out of my throat. There was no way I was going to “work” with a COVID test pending, so I let my management know what was going on. I certainly was in no hurry to get back there. A good portion of my general fatigue was related to the ridiculous and unnecessary physical presence requirement of my job. It had been a long six months of working in a COVID hot spot, for no reason at all. I needed a break from that place, and wished the COVID results would take weeks. Instead they took hours. The result was negative, of course.
Still, I wanted to get my chest double-checked, in the unlikely event that there was some serious problem lurking in my heart or lungs. I rode the bike back to the Star Wars Doctor’s office for a “letter of introduction,” which I would use to enter a local hospital and get checked out. The letter had all my medical information and the COVID test results.
Our neighborhood was rich, so our neighborhood hospital was rich, too. The hospital was new, and the reception area looked like the lobby of a tropical resort. I was the only patient there. Hell, the place was so quiet it felt like I was the only patient in the whole hospital. Apparently that big wave of COVID just hadn’t hit. I handed over my packet of information and sat down to fill out the usual annoying forms (even though I had just given them a letter that contained all of the information I would be required to fill out).
A lady approached and asked if I was covered by Japanese state insurance. No, I was not. I had Cigna corporate-subsidized health insurance for ex-patriots, allowing me to go to any hospital in the world. She sucked air over teeth when I explained this, but there was no outright denial of my admittance, so I continued filling out the forms.
Another receptionist walked over to explain something, which sounded a lot like they couldn’t admit me because I had just been tested (negative) for COVID. This made no sense, so I called my wife and asked her to translate. Sure enough, it made no sense. They wouldn’t let me see a doctor because I had just been tested for COVID, even though the results were negative. Was there any situation in which COVID test results were re-examined and reversed? I didn’t think so. Anyone on the street could have the virus and not know it. I had none of the symptoms in addition to having documented proof that I didn’t have the virus, but for this hospital, incredibly, that was too much risk.
The next day I went to pick up a packet of medicine from the pharmacist that had been called in by the Star Wars doctor. It included nasal spray, pills, and Chinese medicine, a magical powder that tasted like thousand-year-old Tang. Within a couple of days the infection in my lungs would be under control. But what about “Monday through Friday Forever” disease?
Later that day I logged into work email to let MGMT know I was taking Monday off, too, knowing one day wouldn’t be enough. To my surprise there was an email from MGMT, urging me to work from home the next week. Like the hospital, it seemed they were a little freaked out that I had gotten COVID-tested, despite the result. Again it made no sense, but for me this was ideal. It would be the most restful yet productive week of the decade. “Monday through Friday” didn’t seem so bad without the enormous waste of time and energy involved in the commute. Thank you, dear COVID. Working remotely, I regained physical and mental health.
It sure would be nice to secure a stable source of income prior to relocating my family to the other side of the planet. For me, income means getting a job, and a big part of getting a job is sharpening my tech skills.
In the world of Information Technology, learning new tech is the greatest “GOOD” of any career. It’s as important as keeping helium in a blimp. If skills languish, then you might float for a while (or, if you’re working with government, then it could be a LONG while), but eventually your career will crash into the mountain and erupt in flames.
Learning new skills in a fast-moving industry is a challenge in the best of situations. I’ve always been above average when it comes to learning new technologies and getting the certifications to back them up, but in my current situation these efforts call for extra resourcefulness and grit.
PROBLEM: My current work situation presents two great obstacles to staying current and relevant in IT. Together they represent the great “EVIL” I fight every day.
A physical presence requirement.
Legacy, proprietary tech.
The physical presence requirement is a bitch, not only because it is an illogical, unnecessary waste of time and finite human energy (and in COVID times, an actual risk to health), but because it severely limits my ability to use and learn new tech. There are many learning resources that are inaccessible on the “safe” side of the firewall. I can access cloud resources, but cannot connect to a VM, for example. Theory is useless without real-world practice. I can watch training videos, but cannot connect to a live system and take the technology for a spin.
The physical presence requirement also makes learning during the day my only practical option, as it drains most of my energy in the effort it takes to transport my physical meat mass to and from the box where I’m required to exist. Weekends and nights are busy with family activities, but even if I can find the time at home I’d usually prefer to do anything other than stare at a digital display.
The concrete box where I go during the week is also infamous for its legacy (and sometimes proprietary) technology, which is either outdated or configured in such a way that working with it drives one’s career backwards. It is most fortunate that I’m not required to do too much actual work, because working with legacy tech would sink me further into the morass, drawing me further from my goal. The whole place is filled with would-be tech enthusiasts, starving for any scrap that might keep their knowledge pertinent to the real world. As a former colleague put it, “This is the place where skills come to die.”
To combat this, I have a few on-going goals:
1. Learn new tech in an inexpensive, cloud-based sandbox.
2. Leverage the most out of my time during the week.
To sum up: sharpen skills, in the cheapest way possible, while making the most of my time.
Overall, this effort requires a third goal:
3. Fake it to make it.
For this, I began studying and scripting my knowledge over one year ago, in a document called Career Metamorphosis, or Metamorph for short. As of this writing, it is currently fifty-four pages in length, fifteen thousand words. I’ll write about this in more detail, in a future post.
I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school, and I still consider it to be the greatest game ever made.
Magic was one of the many things that made D&D awesome, as it combined well-defined rules, limitless possibilities, and (with a lucky roll of the dice), the ability to turn an otherwise impossible situation into victory.
I want my real life to be as cool as the magic in D&D.
I also want to relocate my family across the Pacific, to the States. This is a big project, perhaps the biggest adventure of our lives.
To meet this goal, income would be nice.
I don’t have to get a job, but it’d be cooler if I did.
But jobs suck!
Or do they? I haven’t looked for a job in twenty years.
Is it possible to make this income transition fun, instead of a burden? If so, how?
My skills and knowledge would be viewed as magic by someone living in ancient times, or even by some older people today.
In a sense, I am a magic user of the modern world.
Okay, that sounds more fun.
So, with that loose chain of logic leading the way, this post is about a temporarily changing the direction with my writing here, getting down and dirty, casting some mean spells. For a couple of months, I’m going to insert some extremely grass-roots tech, the kind of magic I conjure up to bring harmony to the kingdom, and to keep orcs and dragons at bay.
Can I change the direction of this blog? Sure. Why not? I don’t sell anything and nobody reads this stuff anyway. Do they? Probably not, and that’s good. This obscurity grants me all the creative freedom I need.
Right now I’m thinking of doing twenty blog posts in sixty days. My original mission with this blog was to explore ways I could use my tech skills to be beneficial in life, but now is the time for pragmatism and action. My experience in Japan has been rewarding and life-changing on a multitude of levels, but after ten years here it’s time to return to my homeland, the good old USA. I’d prefer a more stable year to return to America, one that did not include a pandemic, protests, riots, soaring unemployment, toxic politics, and impending economic doom. But why not make things interesting? What the heck.
The chaos might actually work in my favor. Schools are closed indefinitely due to the virus, so there’s no hard deadline to get the kids enrolled.
Also, everyone who works in tech is now working from home. After a decade of commuting ten hours per week in Tokyo metro, I’m looking forward to joining them. If there was an emotion stronger than envy then I’d be feeling it now. Working remotely (at least part of the time) is the only way to go, even in the best of times. Work Is Not a Place. It’s great that the IT industry has seemed to hang in there through this weird pandemic / pseudo economic depression we’re in, and doubly great that so many jobs are now suddenly open to remote work. I’ve been preaching the remote work gospel for years and the rest of the world is finally hearing The Word. This pandemic has been great in so many ways.
Working remotely is exactly what I want to do for as long as my corporate citizenship lasts, and it’s looking like it might last a while, with the goal of gracefully transplanting my foreign-born family to the other side of the world, staying solvent at the same time.
The category of the twenty posts in this detour will be “Applied Tech,” unless I can think of something better. Maybe “Applied Magic” would better match the theme. This will be a batch of twenty-plus posts about applying the right kind of magic to get the jobs done – both transitioning my employment situation, and the job of moving my family to the States.
There’s a lot I like about tech. I love learning new things, solving problems, and making tech work for us (as opposed to us struggling with tech). I like working with people – customers, clients, and colleagues alike – but with a certain control over the volume knob that only remote work allows. I’d work with tech even if there was no money involved (and in a way there isn’t, as I’m fortunate to have not lived paycheck-to-paycheck in twenty-five years).
So that’s “why” I’m getting more technical with this blog, to move my family back to the States, in a financially responsible way.
But why am I looking for a job?
This is the kind of question an alien from outer space might ask, an intelligent creature blissfully naïve about the way things work in early 21st Century Earth, sort of like a high school kid who plays D&D. I’ve been asking this question every day since high school, and there’s no reason to stop now.
Health Insurance, I’m Your Bitch
As mentioned, I like tech, but sometimes I don’t want to work with tech every day. Sometimes there are other types of work I’d rather do, work that does not necessarily make good money. My household needs income, of course, but we don’t need the kind of money that an all-encompassing full-time corporate job provides. My ideal work week might involve working a tech job a few days per week, with maybe one day in the office and two at home. The rest of the week I’d work on creative and constructive projects of interest, or devote my time to enriching the lives of my family and community. At this point, money is not as important to me as time.
This dream week of mine would be completely tenable if not for one factor: In America, health care is a life-altering expense. The only way to reasonably afford coverage for a family in the U.S. is health care subsidized by a corporate job. This ends up having a huge impact on quality of life.
In Japan, health coverage for my wife and kids is around US$2,000 per year (it would be free if we were poor). In America, the same coverage, if self-paid, costs ten times as much. (With extremely high premiums it’s possible to get family coverage for around US$4,000 per year in America, but this means hospital visits only for life-threatening emergencies, and no dental.
What are the alternatives?
Start my own business? No health coverage.
What about consultant? No health coverage.
Part-time work? No health coverage.
Gig economy? No health coverage.
With a family to support, it all comes down to health insurance in America, unless you want to roll the dice and hope nobody gets sick or hurt. (This was my dad’s strategy during my teenage years, like twenty percent of Americans today. Somehow we all got lucky, one bone fracture and a sprained ankle notwithstanding – an elementary school misstep that I was obliged to “walk off”.)
I don’t feel that lucky with my family.
Health care, I am your bitch.
So, American health care, you slave-driving destroyer of dreams, it looks like I’ll be working Monday through Friday, fifty hours per week after week after week after soul-crushing week (into infinity), at a job that I won’t necessarily want to be working all of the time. This is a common routine called “The Grind,” and I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years.
Toward the end of a rare one-week break from work I’ve usually shed enough of the psychic trauma to see a glimpse of a future for myself and loved ones outside The Grind, but when starting a new job in America the standard is two precious weeks off per year. PER YEAR! I don’t have that many years left. In a sense, nobody does. Why do we do it? It’s insane.
It’s supremely ironic that I’ll be suffering through all this in the name of health insurance, because this rigid routine compresses one’s vision of the future into two sequential events: more of The Grind itself, and death. (Okay, there’s a slight intermission between the two, the vision of me on my death bed, hooked up to tubes and wires, all paid for by my marvelous health coverage, until the slow beeping of the EKG collapses into a solid tone, and I finally get some much-needed rest.)
The above vision is a delusion, a curse cast by an evil mage. I realize this now, but it’s a constant battle to resist its corrosive effects. For me there are only two ways to make The Grind tolerable, only two incantations that can dispel the curse. The first is remote and flexible work. This is a mandatory requirement for any new job. The second is, well, let’s just say it’s a material component of magic-user spells that will be covered in far future blog posts, when we’re on the other side of the Pacific, settled in the States.
Adventures are not easy. They’re usually fraught with danger, requiring great sacrifice to overcome. I’m ready to take on all the challenges listed above, but there’s no reason I can’t make it fun. What kind of magic will I practice in the journey ahead? I’ll stick with my core bag of tricks, while pushing the boundaries a bit into subject matters I like. If my search could be written into a WHERE clause then it would look something like this:
I’m not quite sure about this syntax, but in plain logic it’s a pretty good picture of what I want to do.
Another thing I want to do with these blog posts is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is storytelling with data. I start with a problem statement, something bad happening in the environment, a wandering monster to slay. There are complications, each worse than the last. There’s a catch hidden somewhere in one of the complications, which ends up leading to the solution in the end. The next twenty-plus posts will not be D&D-themed, at least not to the point that it detracts from the tech. However, I do intend to unlock some possibilities and turn an otherwise impossible situation into victory with a few lucky rolls of the dice. Most of all, I intend to have some fun.
At the end of May I took a much-needed break from virus-related psychological stressors at work and spent the week with my family, hiking the wooded hills surrounding our neighborhood and planting some fruits and vegetables at a community garden down the street. On my first Monday back at “work” (the physical set of coordinates where I was required to exist in exchange for a paycheck) I got some tragic news: one of my closest friends had died over the weekend at his home in Dallas, Texas; a victim of depression, alcoholism, and isolation, having been furloughed from his job and locked down for many weeks. The news hit me extremely hard.
In the following weeks I thought a lot about the state of things in America, again comparing the way the virus had been handled in Japan to the way it continued to be handled so miserably in the States. How had wearing masks become a civil liberties issue? This was where the battle lines had been drawn in America’s Coke versus Pepsi existence, and one side got to have their “I told you so” moment. But how did “masks versus no masks” become an issue in the first place? In Japan, masks were not a civil liberties issue because there was no law requiring people to wear masks. There was no law locking people down. Nobody was forced to do anything. For the most part Japanese people wore masks out of respect for other people, not because they were afraid of getting the virus themselves. Even now, in mid-July, everyone in Japan wore a mask. Even if it was acknowledged as merely symbolic support, for the health of the nation as a whole, everyone wore a mask. The Japanese government was equally as incompetent as the American government. But in Japan, the Japanese people stepped up and saved the day.
This kind of civic responsibility was totally absent in America, where it seemed everyone only saw one of two sides, and in this case one side happened to dislike masks. (It seemed that all Americans only saw one of two sides because that was how the media portrayed it, but there were a lot of folks who understood the insanity of framing issues into two distinct choices, when neither choice made sense.)
In America there was no such thing as taking a rational and nuanced approach to anything, which was too bad, because every problem in the world required a rational and nuanced solution. Instead, the American approach was emotional and dogmatic, either this or that, thumbs up or thumbs down, my team or yours. And the kicker? Neither choice was ever totally correct.
For example, on immigration: “Should we build a giant wall separating US and Mexico, OR should we let everyone across the border?” Answer: Neither. None of the above.
Police brutality: “Should we pretend there’s no problem, OR eliminate the police?” None of the above.
Pandemic: “Should we lock everything down OR open everything up?” None of the above.
Every problem always required a “this AND that” solution. Nothing was ever “this OR that,” but that was how advertising worked best. (Thanks, Facebook, for the thumbs up / thumbs down turd you dropped on an already divided Western world.)
This Coke-OR-Pepsi worldview was killing America’s ability to function as a nation, but it was easy to see why the powers that be (and the powers that wanted to be) were intentionally divisive. This was the best way to control people, to get them on one of two clearly defined sides. The power-grabbing was more vicious than ever; in America there were trillions of dollars at stake. This problem did not start with the current American president; he was a symptom of a bigger problem, not the cause.
If American discourse continued to be filtered through this intentionally divisive paradigm then we were in for a very rough ride. The answer, of course, was to reject the divisiveness, and to be critical of how important issues were framed. There wasn’t much difference between Coke and Pepsi anyway. One was slightly sweeter. It just depended on one’s personal taste.
In confronting the virus, Japan didn’t ponder “mask OR no mask,” “lock everything down OR open everything up,” because only a mentally ill person (or nation) would frame the problem in those terms. The problem required a nuanced approach. If America’s answer had been “none of the above,” (for example, “wear masks AND open some businesses”), then my friend might still be alive.
July 18, 2020
Welcome to Japan’s monsoon season. We’ve had six weeks of more or less continuous rain, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the tomatoes I planted back in May are ever going to ripen. We’ll see.
In the past few weeks Japanese news outlets are reporting an increase in virus cases. As noted in Sickness Begins in the Mind, I’m surprised that so many people seem to take a daily tally of “number of cases” at face value, without really examining what’s behind the numbers, because by itself “number of cases” is a useless number, other than to keep people in line. I suppose if anything “number of cases” serves to encourage people to keep their guard up, reminding them that this thing isn’t over yet, and that’s probably for the best.
Still, “number of cases” annoys me a bit because there’s never any indication of what the number means, other than the obvious, that someone tested positive for the virus. But so what? The meaning of “number of cases” depends entirely on context, right? Were all of these cases people who sought medical attention? What percentage of these cases were hospitalizations? If all of the cases were hospitalized, then that would mean many more unreported cases out there. But what else was new? A couple months ago there was a news story about Japan conducting a nationwide effort to test large numbers of healthy people, for the purpose of detecting antibodies, people who had already contracted the virus, and (I think) asymptomatic cases. I’m not sure what happened to this study, but I’m curious. I’ll try to find out.
Still, there are rumors of another ROCK-DOWN in Tokyo, though I think this rumor may have been started by people who take “number of cases” more seriously than they should. (I love the way Japanese pronounce rock-down, and the way they pretend like emulating America is the thing to do.) There never was an official lock-down in Japan, only advisories, and a docile “state of emergency”.
What the Japanese news outlets never seem to report is number of deaths, because that number might convince people that the virus is nothing to worry about. The number of deaths is effectively zero per day in Tokyo, in a metro area of thirty million, and has reached a grand total of just under one thousand deaths for the entire country since January, a number that is much lower than the death rate of the seasonal flu of any given year.
Well, that was a full month, wasn’t it? April 2020 was a bitch.
My experience with the virus was a mental marathon that I would never forget. To my knowledge I never contracted the virus, but I experienced it twice, in a way, as I lived simultaneously in two very different worlds.
It was no easy trick to maintain mental health during a global pandemic, especially considering our warped means of acquiring truth.
I was never too concerned with getting the virus myself. I may have been high risk to get it, but throughout most of this thing I maintained the audacity to believe I was low risk to die from it. “But what if?” the world whispered a million times from January until now. And therein lay the basis of the great mental challenge everyone faced.
I accepted this challenge, seeking ways to manage the influx of panic from others around me, while grasping for ways to determine whether they or I had gone insane. Of course, thinking too much about the virus would not cause infection, but it could very well cause someone to lose their mind.
From the beginning, my goal with this thing was to apply the right amount of self-preserving negative emotion (fear, worry, anger, or whatever) to the problem at hand. In my professional life I specialized in automation and efficiency, applying the right amount of resources to get the job done. It wasn’t like I had a whole lot of energy to spare anyway, with a busy career and a hectic family life at home.
In the Buddhist tradition there was the “Hear no evil, see no evil” proverb, the gist of which was to avoid unnecessary evil thoughts. This was exactly what I strove to do. There was a fine line between taking something too seriously and not taking it seriously enough. A lack of seriousness could result in physical harm, even death, while too much seriousness could affect mental health (which could in turn have a very real effect on physical health). But what was the right amount of mental energy devoted to this virus? Nobody knew. Or rather, it was too difficult to discern, with every shred of American reality filtered through the carnival fun house of a polarized press. Depending on the source, the virus was Reality One (no big deal), or Reality Two (the end of the world). Of course, as usual, neither of these realities were all true, but what was? One thing that was certain from the beginning: there was a lot of bullshit flying around.
On any given day, most worries turned out to be pointless. There was a famous study in psychology that concluded over ninety percent of energy devoted to negative emotions was a total waste. Either the object of our worry never came to pass, or it ended up being much less harmful than we had imagined. I continually reminded myself: “don’t believe everything you think,” because the stories about myself that spun through my mind were usually false. Things were always much better than they seemed.
At first glance, the “hear no evil, see no evil” proverb may have seemed like superstitious woo, but in many ways sickness began in the mind.
What was my unique experience with the virus, and why did it matter? I saw firsthand how two very different countries handled this thing, and through this comparison some truths were revealed. The virus may have been the biggest news story of the century so far, but to me the even bigger story was what the virus exposed. From afar, America seemed fragile, fragmented, at war with itself.
Japan, for all its many faults, handled this thing pretty well. My home life was in Japan. For me this was Reality One.
Reality Two was work. I commuted every weekday to a gated American community on Tokyo Bay. It was “gated” in the sense that it was surrounded by barbed wire, concrete and guns: the former home of the Japanese Imperial Navy, now headquarters to U.S. Seventh Fleet.
In Reality One, my home life throughout this thing was better than ever. I was lucky to be married to a wonderful, good-spirited woman who maintained a positive approach to life. She ran the household, playing the role of traditional housewife of a bygone era, homeschooling our kids (in two languages, no less).
We were never “locked down” in the Chinese or Italian or American approach to dealing with this thing, nor were any other Japanese. We were part of a close-knit community of family and friends that extended out to a couple hundred people or more, very few of whom would practice any real social distancing.
Japan confirmed its first cases of the virus in early January, and for a month afterwards everyone was keeping an eye on news reports. A few people in our town got it. There was an outbreak originating at a hot yoga studio down the street (appropriately named “LAVA,” which the locals pronounced “RAVA”), an event that made regional news because it was across the street from city hall. Oh dear! RAVA was also on the same corner as the convenience store where I stopped every morning on my walk to the station, and very close to the little café our friends owned. I would continue frequenting both locations with increased vigor as the weeks rolled on, with the aim of supporting local businesses. (This would turn out to be unnecessary, as the café experienced a surge of business from take-out, and the convenience store got more business from people working from home.)
There were a couple other local cases early on, but then things died down. Everyone more or less forgot about the virus until late March, when the U.S. was in full panic mode.
My Own Sickness of the Mind
“…anything that interrupted the endless cascade of workweeks of commuting and existing in a physical space seemed like a sweet oasis, even if it meant getting sick and risking death.”
I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t so concerned with getting the virus. This was true, but not because I didn’t believe there was no risk. While America fought its bipolar insanity, I struggled with my own.
Things were good at home in Reality One. I was a hero to my family. For ten years I had worked in a foreign land to support our household in a beautiful, historic beach community, allowing my wife to meet her goal of immersing our kids in the language and culture of her country. I was home every night for dinner and spent evenings with the family. On weekends we went hiking, attended school events, or went to the beach. Not only had we prospered, but I had saved a substantial amount for retirement and had stashed away enough cash to buy a house in the States. I had published a novel, an accomplishment I’d take to the grave. Everyone in my family was healthy and strong. There was laughter around our house. Looking at things on a statistical scale, I (the high school loser) had never carried any debt, and had somehow risen to the top seven or eight percent for household net worth in America, top three percent in Japan, and top tenth of one percent in the world.
In Reality Two, my professional life, I was exhausted and bored. Despite all my amazing accomplishments, I had a cruel narrative of my own spinning through my head: the story of how I was still a slacker who had never amounted to much.
For the better part of three decades I had been working Monday through Friday, averaging fifty hours or more per week. I didn’t recall a single Sunday night in those fifteen hundred or so weeks when I had looked forward to Monday morning at work. For sure there had been days that I looked forward to waking up to work on my own creative projects. But like many people, since high school I had never possessed the wherewithal, imagination (or whatever was needed) to match my natural talents to the needs of the economic machine.
So I didn’t fear getting the virus because anything that interrupted the endless cascade of workweeks of commuting and existing in a physical space seemed like a sweet oasis, even if it meant getting sick and risking death.
This was my own sickness of the mind, and it was on me to make it better for everyone concerned. In mid-2019 I started looking for a new job, one that would take me and my foreign-born family to the States.
Reality One (Continued)
“Is this an allergic reaction to cedar pollen, or do I have five days to live?”
In the first week of February, a few thousand people aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess were quarantined at Yokohama. At work, I could see the ship with a pair of binoculars from across Tokyo Bay.
Later that week I was on a call with some people from the States (a job interview that I hoped would bring me home), at the conclusion of which they joked, “stay away from that cruise ship over there!” I had driven past the ship a couple of times, like anyone else who had crossed the Yokohama Bay Bridge. Later I made the comment to my wife: “America’s not going to handle this well.” For America, the problem was still “over there,” but for us things were already heating up.
Hokkaido was a natural place for a virus outbreak. We had been skiing there the previous year, and it had seemed that at least half the guests at the Niseko Hilton were Chinese.
A friend of ours went home to Hokkaido during this time, taking advantage of the cheap flights and the deserted ski slopes. This was in line with her character, and we thought it commendable and brave, a display of mental fortitude that would become increasingly rare.
Our family was scheduled to go on our own ski trip to central Japan with another family at around this time, but the other family cancelled on advice of the elderly grandfather enforcing Japanese group-think compliance, in accordance to global health warnings that were starting to come down. I was relieved at the cancellation, not so much because I was concerned about the virus (as stated above), but because it just felt like the right thing to do.
We had also purchased tickets to fly to Hawaii at the end of March for my wife’s much-anticipated fortieth birthday, but of course this would never come to pass.
The second week of February was always my least favorite time of the year, as that was when the seasonal allergy season began. If I was a practicing Catholic I would’ve received an exemption from Lent, because dealing with the allergy season was more than enough suffering, a slow torture that lasted months. In the year 2020 this meant that I had almost all the symptoms of the terrible virus, all the time: congestion, sneezing, scratchy throat, body chills, burning eyes, fatigue. For the first week of this nonsense I woke every morning wondering “Is this an allergic reaction to cedar pollen, or do I have five days to live?” This led to my first attempt at addressing the mental game of the virus, because one could only live in fear for so long. Meditation helped control my thoughts, or at least make me aware of them; but it was a constant effort that I never completely won.
Of course it also so happened that I had major dental surgery in this week, having a steel post drilled into my jaw for an implant later on.
In the final week of February the Japanese government closed all schools nationwide with a resounding gong. This may have been the biggest shock we experienced in Reality One. All classes and graduation ceremonies were cancelled or postponed. (The Japanese school year ended in April, so effectively the government was giving kids an extra-long spring break that would eventually extend into the summer. This turned out to be the best year ever for kids. For moms, not so much.)
Early on, and even months later, Japan’s strategy to combat the pandemic seemed to be “no tests, no cases,” like the proverbial monkey covering his eyes. Much of this was focused on trying to keep the 2020 Tokyo Olympics alive. But curiously, the Olympics seemed to be under assault from as early as January, when there were a string of news articles critical of the decision to hold the Olympics due to risk of radiation (the real risk was zero, but any mention of the word “radiation” made the perception of risk very high). There was continued pressure from one particular Japanese news source to curtail or contain Olympic events, until finally they hit pay dirt with the virus, and the rest was history. This would probably be forgotten in time, but it was weird witnessing increased criticism of the Olympics, which of course was more of an economic event than anything else. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it was noteworthy indeed.
The Japanese group-think efforts to combat the virus were at times unintentionally adorable and even downright illogical, with the end result being inexplicable success.
Japanese wore masks anyway in February due to the vicious combination of seasonal allergies and the regular flu, but it was funny to see how many only put the mask over their mouth and not their nose. Some pulled their mask down all the way to smoke! Every day, the train was filled with commuters with nervous, narrow eyes peering above tightly-fitted masks, grabbing the guardrail that scores of other people had grabbed with their bare hands. Did they not realize viruses were also spread by touch? Families walked down the street, half wearing masks, half not. Parents wore masks while their kids played without masks in the park. Didn’t they realize it was an all or nothing thing?
For most Japanese the masks were a compliance thing. In group-think societies everyone did the same thing. The rare individual who assessed her personal risk to be low wore a mask anyway, as a symbol of her support. This compliance, if anything, probably saved the country’s ass. If you asked the typical Japanese why she was still wearing a mask in May she would probably be confused. “This is what we do.” The Japanese would keep wearing masks generation after generation for the next thousand years without question, until some official word came down to take them off. They’d all wear Santa Claus caps forever if that was what it took. If anyone wanted to understand Japan in five words, it was “This is what we do.”
To sum up the first half of my bipolar experience with the virus, the effect on my daily life was close to zero. There may have been some travel advisories and some restrictions on movement throughout the country (that amounted to mere suggestion), but these things went unnoticed by me, as I never went anywhere besides work and home. Despite the jolt of school closures, the cancellation of the Olympics, and the usual fierce allergy season, the mood from our corner of Japan was very good.
The setting for the other half of my experience with this virus was “work,” a building in the gated American military community on Tokyo Bay. (Although, as I noted in several other essays, I had never considered work to be a place.)
As someone who had worked effectively for ten years as part of a remote, virtual team, this was something I could never forget. In fact it made all the inefficiencies of being in an office all the more obvious, especially in a government office, where I was a private sector contractor paid to do the actual work of those who slept at their desks.
By the second week of March the U.S. seemed to finally grasp the idea that the virus was an actual thing, even though Japan had been dealing with it for six weeks. For me this was where the narrative got weird, tragic, and bizarre, because in one half of my existence, Reality One, it “felt” like the virus was done. Later stats would prove this to be true. But in America (and by extension my work life), things were just heating up. As I had predicted, it didn’t go well. America was already so polarized, stressed out, depressed and psychologically fragile that any bit of bad news was going to cause Lady Liberty to soil her shorts.
In Japan, news of the virus was reported with a barely audible exhale that Japanese do right before they’re about to say something disagreeable or unpleasant.
In extreme contrast, the news of the virus broke in America with the madness and fury of a pro wrestler, neck veins bulging, blood pressure supernaturally high, fueled by steroids and cocaine, eyes popping out, foam shooting from his mouth as the sound of a fog horn erupted from his vocal cords. It was the most hideous sight in the world, but impossible to not watch.
In the third week of March I had two promising, possibly final interviews with a couple organizations that could deliver me and my family back to the States. As if the virus hysteria wasn’t bad enough, a major earthquake struck the location of the interviewers (Salt Lake City), and both orgs put the jobs permanently on hold. Later the postings would be cancelled. It seemed I’d be stuck with my current employment situation in Japan for a while, if not for years.
Meanwhile, the virus hysteria reached alarming levels at my work location of Little America on Tokyo Bay, even though my home life remained normal as could be.
To my surprise, a follow-up appointment for my dental surgery was cancelled. What was going on? This was a U.S. panic we were experiencing, not Japanese! I came to find out that my Japanese dentist had closed on advice of the American Dental Association (ADA), as many of her customers were from the U.S. Navy base.
For a couple of weeks the hysteria on the base seemed to be purely a reaction to what was happening in the States, totally out of whack with what was actually happening in Japan. Then there came actual risk.
First there was the well-publicized virus outbreak on the USS Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier returning to Guam from Vietnam. Hundreds of sailors were infected. A commanding officer got fired. The Secretary of Navy resigned.
Then, close to home, it was announced that a sailor had returned from the U.S. to Japan on March 15th to the USS Reagan, an aircraft carrier parked a few hundred meters from where I worked. Ten days into quarantine the sailor had gotten sick, testing positive for the virus. There were over four thousand plus sailors on the Reagan, all living in packed living conditions, breathing the same air, touching the same surfaces every day. For a week or more, all of these thousands of sailors had been moving about freely on the base where I worked. By the second week of April there was a confirmed outbreak on the ship – and perhaps all over the base, in my office and everywhere else. Who knew? In typical military fashion, there was zero transparency about what was going on, or how serious the situation had become, which made the panic even worse. If the pro wrestler with the fog horn voice of doom could get any louder, it just had.
This meant extra stress at work, as we were part of the overall effort to keep these carriers operational in the Pacific. From a global political standpoint, this left East Asia unguarded in the seas, with an emboldened Chinese carrier fleet sailing unopposed between Japan and Taiwan. China was a hungry Kung Fu Panda, and Taiwan was a delicious, steamy dumpling, just out of reach. In terms of the virus, Taiwan had disbelieved the WHO’s (China’s) advice from the beginning, and, along with Singapore and a few other East Asian hot-spots, had conquered this thing early on. Part of the reason for Taiwan’s continued independence was diplomacy, but the U.S. Seventh Fleet was a powerful symbol, whose mission was to back up the talk.
With both Far East carrier fleets down due to the virus outbreak, the alert level reached a fevered pitch. Extreme lock-down measures were enforced on the base.
Combat readiness was one thing, but many of the measures made no sense. It was almost like they had to maintain a level of stress and inconvenience, for lack of anything else to do.
In the spirit of taking this thing seriously, I was asked by my employer to continue maximizing my exposure to the virus by leaving my peaceful, disease-free home each morning and returning to the place where I was required to situate my physical meat mass in exchange for money, taking trains used by thousands of people each day, commuting to a virus hot spot where everyone had an elevated sense of fear – all after having clearly demonstrated my ability to connect and fulfill my responsibilities from home. It was a classic “hurry up and wait” situation, except for me it was “shelter in place and come to work”.
It had always seemed like a huge chunk of my job was to endure massive volumes of ridiculous bullshit, but now the bullshit had reached heights I had never before seen.
At first all this was infuriating and demoralizing, but I would come to appreciate many of the end results. Crew members were confined to ships. “Non-essential” staff (redundant government bloat that comprised eighty percent of my organization) were told to stay home. With all those loud-mouthed fake job holders out of the office, I could finally get some work done.
As someone who was told to shelter in place without being given the option to do so, my last remaining challenge during this thing became maintaining my psychological well-being in the face of other people’s fear.
It sucked, but what were my options? I could quit, but then what? Join the muddled mass of forty million Americans unemployed? Living the life of a creative person was the tempting, “I’ll be there one day” daydream, like Maximus in the movie Gladiator, running his hands over fields of golden wheat on the farm he’d never see again.
No, quitting was not an option. There was no Plan B. It was time to get tough. I made a second effort to double-down on the mental game, fully accepting my fate. Going forward I had a three-prong approach to maintaining my mental health.
A) I took reasonable precautions, washing hands, wearing a mask in crowded places like the train.
B) I faced my own mortality. This sounded pretty deep, but early on I accepted that this could be how I exited the world. I got all the paperwork together, the will, passwords, access to bank accounts for my wife. I thought a lot about maintaining dignity and grace in the face of danger.
My seventy-nine year-old dad worked as a supervisor at a Veterans’ Administration (VA) hospital in the American West. If he had one talent in life it was making other people feel good about themselves. His positivity was dauntless, at times even absurd. But it served him and everyone around him well. Things got slow around the hospital where he worked when the virus peaked, as non-essential appointments had been cancelled, and they never saw the surge of patients they had expected. Even so, this was how he chose to face danger, and by extension, death.
The American Panic
c) The third prong of my strategy to maintain mental health during this thing was to encourage others at work. There were very vocal people around me whose brains were securely tethered to social media and other sources of mind poison, and their fear was spreading unchecked. It wasn’t just the virus that was contagious; thoughts were contagious, too.
Encouraging people was a delicate task. Sometimes it took the form of calling out bullshit, but nobody liked to be told their fear wasn’t justified. It was the same thing as being told you’re a coward, or insane. For much of the month of April I dealt with a bit of both. Even considering the uncertain situation around my worksite, the American approach to this thing seemed way out of whack.
Beginning in March there were constant rumblings about how bad things were getting, lots of what-if’s, and “it’s worse than you think”. People became obsessed with numbers: number of cases, number of tests, number of deaths. Early on I decided that numbers were useless when it came to assessing personal risk. Most of the numbers were inaccurate or misleading anyway. Plus, we human beings were incapable of processing even the most accurate numbers when fear and self-preservation were involved.
In mid-April someone at work told me with a shaky voice that America had half a million dead already, and there would be millions more. A quick check at a more reliable source online set this guy straight.
The crew of the USS Reagan was devastated, the ship incapacitated for months, someone else predicted.
Another office story: “all you have to do is show a mother who has lost five children. FIVE! And you know how serious this thing is!” This guy was so emotional that I wasn’t sure whether to shit my pants or burst out laughing. Afterwards I frantically searched online for this story but couldn’t find anything. I had heard the virus didn’t affect children as much, if at all. But who knew?
On another occasion I overheard someone say that Tom Hanks had tested positive for the virus. The news was delivered in a quiet, somber tone, as if Hanks had just died. I reminded this person that getting the virus did not equal automatic death, even for someone over the venerable age of sixty.
In another discussion some jackass asked how positive my attitude be when I held my dead child in my arms. This was about as worse as things got. I let it slide.
To add to the mental challenge of encouraging (or confronting) others there was the never-ending “poor me” voice in my head, that sickness of my own mind, whining about the unnecessary psychological suffering I endured. Why was I there? What was the meaning of all this? At home with my family I would’ve never had to deal with this kind of bullshit. Having worked from home for a decade, it was impossible to ignore the stupidity of a physical presence requirement for my work. I had already proven my ability to fulfill all of my obligations of my current employment situation by working remotely. If the virus was an actual risk then why was I being asked to put the health of my family and community in danger, for no reason at all? Now, forced to interact with fearful people whose minds were securely tethered to the fear-mongering news outlets from the other side of the world, every week became a battle for my own sanity in which I was forced to defend my positive stance.
I had a sense that everything would be okay despite the non-stop negativity around me at work, but still it was just a sense. Could I back up my positivity with facts? Every day I walked down to the USS Reagan, looking for signs that it was getting under way. Under normal conditions I questioned the usefulness of an aircraft carrier in modern times. If things ever got really serious the ship could be taken out in one second with a single tactical nuke. The annual maintenance cost of a single carrier fleet probably could’ve paid college tuition for every American student for a year, and America had eleven fleets. On the other hand, there were thousands of people aboard the Reagan, and I wished them all the best. They had been originally scheduled to deploy at month end, but with the virus outbreak this date seemed out of reach. Still, I checked the ship every day for signs they were leaving. Their on-time departure would be a vindication of my faith.
“In an age when the sum of all human knowledge was available to everyone, it was impossible to know anything for sure.”
It was one thing to have faith, but how did I know I wasn’t a fool? There were a few news stories on virus-doubters who were now dead, Dead, DEAD, all because they had been virus heretics. They had disbelieved the dogma, and they had paid the ultimate price. The message was “this can happen to you, too, man, so watch your step!”
“Yeah, but I’m not a virus doubter, I just…”
“Shut up. You either believe in the danger or you don’t. Do you want to die? Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
This was how it went with all information about the virus. It was how it went with every issue that America processed as a country. Things were either this or they were that. There was no in between. Was it really a yes or no question? I wanted accurate information, but who could I trust?
Even the official health agencies got this thing wrong from the beginning, at first downplaying the seriousness. The CDC advised that people could avoid wearing masks. We got a good laugh out of this at work. The Japanese wore masks during this season, even in the best of times. A couple weeks later the word was: “Wear masks! Wear masks!”
In an attempt to justify my absurd optimism I turned to the most horrible institution known to humanity: American news. The quality of American news media had been spiraling into oblivion for a couple of decades, starting with cable news. It got considerably worse after 2009, when Facebook implemented the “like” button. This single seemingly innocent feature had transformed the minds of hundreds of millions of people, so that everyone now thought of everything in binary ways. The intentionally addictive nature of the platform led to Facebook dominating the way hundreds of millions of people saw the world. Every issue was either this or that, thumbs up or thumbs down.
Most of journalism had been reduced to click-bait opinion pieces. As WIRED magazine put it, all journalists were now sharecroppers on the Facebook farm. Facebook had completed the bipolar insanity begun in the previous decades. Even in the best of conditions American news was too nauseating to behold. Now, with the virus, it was off the hook.
Ideally, I liked to imagine my mind as an exclusive club into which only the purest and most vetted ideas were allowed entry, but of course this was impossible when it came to world events. It went without saying that I abstained from all forms of social media. I was more likely to drink a glass of diarrhea than use Twitter or Facebook. As for Big Media, I considered most of the major outlets to be too biased to take seriously, but I had to start somewhere.
I was very careful to keep my research well-rounded, but there were always two sides. Add a global pandemic and economic collapse to an election year, and the result was a shit storm unmatched.
Getting accurate information was like being a kid in a bitter custody battle between a schizophrenic mom and an overbearing dad. Both parents twisted the truth around, just to get you on their side.
With the exception of one journalist, Fox News was more or less a sounding board for whatever crazy / crazy-sounding thought that shot through the mind of the POTUS (to be fair, not all crazy-sounding thoughts were actually crazy), while the other side (i.e., practically every news organization that was not Fox), reacted (OUTRAGED!), fact-checked, decried.
CNN had seemed weak, biased, and unscrupulous for a couple of decades. MSNBC was the Anti-Fox, propaganda wing of the Democratic National Party, maybe even the CPC.
Twenty years prior I might have trusted the New York Times for unbiased, quality reporting. They still had talented, insightful writers, but after 2016 they had become the anti-POTUS paper, every story slanted toward dethroning the king. I didn’t blame them. The POTUS had always been the villain New Yorkers loved to hate, and in general he wasn’t easy to like. But in order to combat the POTUS, it was necessary for the Gray Lady to don a cheap spandex suit and get down and dirty with the king in a prime time wrestling spectacle from which no one walked away clean.
With the virus, the New York Times became doubly unhelpful, as they portrayed the worst possible impact, both as a way of hurting the POTUS and because they were experiencing the worst possible impact first hand. The NYT would have better served a local readership during the virus outbreak. Outside New York metro, hospitals weren’t getting pounded, morticians weren’t making rounds through neighborhoods yelling “bring out your dead”.
One of my favorite pod-casters, someone who I had held my highest respect for his objectivity and intellect over the years, declared that it was better to fear-monger the hell out of this virus for the purpose of getting the POTUS out of office, especially considering their opposing candidate was weak. I was alarmed by this declaration on a couple of levels. If this was the Left’s strategy then it seemed risky, if not downright idiotic. Would those forty million unemployed Americans blame their plight on the POTUS who was trying to “re-open” the country and put them back to work?
In addition to the political motives there was also the usual fear-mongering for the purpose of selling mouse-clicks or papers. Some were hilarious. The Sun (UK) had a graphic of the US titled “virus deaths per state,” with a label for each state on the map, so that the word “DEATH” appeared in bold caps fifty or more times, a graphic of DEATH. The only thing missing was the death metal guitar solo.
Perhaps this whole media mess was unavoidable, a tragic evolution of communication during our times. In an age when the sum of all human knowledge was available to everyone, it was impossible to know anything for sure. For someone like me who was just trying to get the straight scoop on what was happening with the virus, news wasn’t much help at all. In the end I stuck with what the CDC was saying, and seasoned my thoughts with a variety of podcasts and positive story opinion pieces to keep hope alive.
I wanted to remain positive for the purpose of keeping my mental space clean at work and I wanted all of us to get through this thing okay. So I continued encouraging others and dispelling pointless panic when it raised its stupid head.
In a bizarre twist of philosophical orientation I became the recipient of criticism from friends and family, accused of being insensitive, ignorant, naïve.
It sure didn’t help that initial advice from the POTUS had been dangerously optimistic, or that the line had been drawn between continuing to enforce a lock-down in America and opening the country back up. Now even optimism had been politicized, and I was on the “wrong side”. I had taken the same attitude with the Swine Flu back whenever that had been. I couldn’t even remember who was president at the time. Why did it matter? I didn’t have a side. I just called it like I saw it, and from my point of view things weren’t that bad.
The Japanese Copycat Panic
In the month of April it seemed like Japan began copying what America was doing, enforcing soft lock-downs (in real effect, doing nothing), with no hard evidence that things were getting worse than they were in February. Many people worked from home. As a symbolic show of support everyone wore masks.
In our city there were daily announcements from the mayor, speaking over loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles in every neighborhood. As far as I knew these public announcement systems existed in every city in Japan. The up side to them was emergency preparedness, like in the case of a tsunami or typhoon. At 5 PM every day a chime reminded children when to return home for dinner. A couple times per month the community was alerted that an old person with dementia had escaped her care-giving captors and was roaming the streets, lost. If anyone saw her, they were to call city hall. There was always a follow-up announcement to let everyone know she had been captured and returned to old folks’ jail.
Despite the occasional usefulness of the announcement system, it felt very much like Big Brother yelling into our house. In April they began announcing news and reminders about the virus, as if there was anyone who didn’t already know there was a pandemic going on out there. In our city the messages were vague, like “don’t go out unless you have to, and please take care”. This was very annoying to all the moms who had to stay home, and to the kids. One day our four-year-old asked, “When is that guy going to shut up and give us some ice cream?” It was amusing to imagine all the twelve-gauge buckshot that would be blasted into these loudspeakers if the system had been implemented in the States. This was a key difference between the U.S. and Japan.
All the small businesses in our town remained open except for Starbucks and Patagonia, who were apparently abiding by American lock-down rules. A friend of mine worked for Patagonia. My envy spiked to new heights when he said that Patagonia was paying all its employees to stay home. (The Patagonia store in our town would permanently close in May.)
The MacDonald’s and KFC near the station remained open for take-out only. Funny, the KFC Colonel Sanders sign in front of the store held a sign that pleaded its customers “Stay Home,” while inside the empty store bored employees pleaded for customers to come in and order take-out food. Every restaurant, hair salon, and pet shop stayed open. Except for Starbucks and Patagonia, no businesses closed.
Some of our Japanese neighbors enforced “shelter in place” on themselves, but it was never mandatory in our prefecture or anywhere else in the country. The so-called state of emergency was whispered in a practically inaudible voice. In theory people weren’t supposed to move about, but what were the police to do? Would they form an economic analysis on every person to determine whether their actions were essential or not? A couple moms in our group of friends chose to isolate their kids when the American panic came back around to us, but what was the point? All these kids had already been hanging out together outside of school for months. Throughout the whole thing there was not a single day that my family sheltered in place. Believe me, I envied the hell out of those who were lucky enough to stay home – not because I was afraid of the virus, necessarily, but because so much of my precious energy was wasted on the commute to work.
Japan’s Accidental Success
For sure the lock-down strategy had done a lot of good in some places like China, Western Europe, New York, and a few other big cities in the States. Japan implemented a “state of emergency,” which was effectively a word of caution. People were left to do what they wanted. Japanese typically admired places like Italy and New York for their individualism and freewheeling excitement, but it became apparent that during states of emergency the “exciting” places of the world were not the places to be.
Aside from Japan’s group-think advantage, they also had in their arsenal a set of cultural norms that kept people healthy in jam-packed conditions.
Japan valued social distancing in the best of times, and for centuries they had been a much cleaner place than the West. They bowed, and never shook hands. They didn’t kiss cheeks or hug.
I loved Italy, but it was easy to see how the virus could spread quickly through Rome. One time, on a crowded bus in near Termini Station, some young ragazzo sneezed without covering his mouth, coating my face in a fine sheen of snot. Perhaps coincidence, but by the end of the trip I was sick.
New York may have had hygiene levels similar to Rome. I was no expert on NYC, but compared to Tokyo it didn’t seem like a very hygiene-conscious place. This became apparent when news stories appeared to remind Americans of the proper way to cover their faces when sneezing, or how to wash their hands.
I had always washed my hands the proper way because it made common sense, just as it made common sense to remove my shoes when I entered a house. The Japanese had standards for cleanliness that were superior to the West centuries ago, and they were still superior now.
The Japanese had much higher life expectancy than Americans anyway, and seemed healthier overall. Generally speaking there were almost no fat people in Japan, and this may have played a part in their success.
A week ago there was another adorable news article in the Japan Times: “ICU Filling Up!” Early on in the article it was revealed that Saint Luke Hospital of Tokyo had only one bed left in its ICU, and all the others were occupied by victims of the virus. The twist to the story was that Saint Luke Hospital had only eight beds total in its ICU, laughably inadequate even in the best of times. Nearly every hospital in the U.S. and the U.K. had made emergency preparations to receive an anticipated influx of hundreds or thousands of additional patients, but not Japan.
Disease experts would continue to be baffled by Tokyo’s seemingly accidental success for many years to come. Every week since January there had been a doom-and-gloom article in the news about how Tokyo would get hit hard, but it never came to pass. Why not? Tokyo had equal if not greater population density than New York, and more smokers per capita. For sure Tokyo had more old people. Japan had the oldest population in the world. Hell, the average age of Tokyo home owners was sixty-five!
I saw some stories blaming socioeconomic differences and limited access to health care in New York. These things were surely problems, but it wasn’t like the wonderful Japanese health care system had attended to everyone’s needs to win the war against the virus. The hospitals just weren’t filling up (except for the one that only had eight ICU beds).
The Japanese government was generally inept at handling the virus. (As a symbol of their ineptitude we would finally receive our two tiny “Abe masks” from the government, weeks after the state of emergency ended.) The government got lucky with the “no tests, no cases” approach. There was no cover up, just accidental success on the part of the government. It was the Japanese people who would save the day. In the case of a state of emergency, it was a real luxury to live in a society with group-think compliance, respect for community, and cleanliness standards superior to those in the West. As of May, in Tokyo there were a few hundred deaths out of thirty million in all twenty-three wards.
Who Stayed Sane?
At work (and in America), the masses were still in full lock-down mode at the end of April, minds securely fastened to what was happening in America. After nearly four months of stress over this thing I decided to take the Japanese Golden Week off to enjoy the beautiful, uncrowded comfort of our beach side town.
There was talk of a resurgence of the virus, and a few lingering “what if’s,” but I continued to ask: what if something good happened instead?
On the Friday before my holiday I walked down the street from work to check on the USS Reagan one last time. Both sensor arrays were spinning. I jogged back to the office in high spirits. The Reagan was getting under way. (By early next week the Reagan would be doing engineering trials on the open sea, and the Roosevelt was preparing to deploy.)
Our city was a popular tourist destination for people living in Tokyo. Every year we get a couple hundred thousand extra visitors for the national holiday in the first week of May, called Golden Week. Yes, a surge of people greater than the population of the city itself all visited in one week. This was a miserable time for us locals, who found it hard to get around town due to all the visiting dopes, who I referred to as Golden Weakers. This year, however, the wonderful virus turned this mass of humanity away. There was an announcement from the Mayor on the first day of Golden Week, this time not vague at all: “If you are a tourist, go home. Do not surf. Do not go to the shrines. Please. Go home.” The wife and I had a good laugh over this. I took the week off and it was the best Golden Week ever, although I did wear a little sticker on my shirt that stated “I am not a tourist,” to ward off the evil eyes of old ladies at the supermarket.
It had been a rough spring but things were starting to look better. I got my tooth fixed, and my seasonal allergies cleared up. After the holiday I would resume the job search, to assuage my own sickness of the mind.
The Reagan getting under way was a symbolic vindication of my faith, but what were the facts? Had I been a justified optimist, or a fool?
As of May things still looked good in our city on the Shonan Coast. As mentioned, we saw some cases in January and February but it never spread and it didn’t look like it ever would. I walked by a hospital every day to and from the station, and the place still looked sleepy as could be. The lobby was usually empty. Sometimes a nurse would be sitting outside reading a book, enjoying the sunny spring day.
Closer to home, our densely-populated prefecture (Kanagawa, adjacent to Tokyo) had recorded over nine hundred cases by the end of May. Kanagawa had a population of over nine million people, so something like one out of nine thousand got sick after months of viral onslaught, or 0.01%. Of those thousand people, there were fifty-six deaths.
To put into perspective, this would be like filling three World Cup stadiums to capacity, and from those crowds, one person dying. (This would have been one out of one hundred and sixty thousand.) In some countries it was safe to assume that at least one person died on the way home from a World Cup match anyway, and this went unnoticed by the population at large.
Even closer to home, there had been a total of forty recorded cases in our city of 178,000 people, or 0.02% of the population. This was a little higher percentage than the overall prefecture, perhaps because our city hosted many visitors from out of town. There was no record of deaths (either because there were no deaths or because city hall didn’t list them), but it was presumed to be zero.
I had been in the midst of a couple large-scale global disasters, one of which killed twenty thousand people in ten minutes. (Somehow, a large number of people dying suddenly was perceived as more tragic than the same number of people dying slowly over the course of months.)
Recently I realized I had been born in the midst of a worldwide disaster. In October of 1968 the Hong Kong Flu hit America. According to the CDC it killed over one hundred thousand people. The population of the U.S. was around two hundred million at the time, so it was accurate to say the Hong Kong Flu killed more Americans per capita than the Wuhan Flu (around a quarter of a million, in proportion to today’s population). There was no “number of cases” statistic, because people had more important shit to worry about in 1968, like a pivotal presidential election, an unpopular war overseas that would kill over fifty thousand Americans, the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, widespread civil unrest, and multiple nationwide riots. (The similarities between 2020 and 1968 were fascinating, but one thing was clear: things were much, much better in the current age.) Despite killing more people per capita than the current virus, the Hong Kong Flu barely made the news. Nobody wore masks. There was no lock-down. There was no economic impact. Recently I asked my mom if she remembered a pandemic the year of my birth. Of course she didn’t. Nobody did. Lucky them.
By the end of May, the CDC would update its statistics on the current virus, showing a mortality rate for people under fifty to be less than the regular flu. Their best guess at asymptomatic rate was thirty-five percent, which brought the morality rate way down. In the rare cases where seemingly healthy people had been tested en masse (like on the USS Roosevelt), the asymptomatic rate was as high as seventy percent.
In reality, the virus of 2019 might have been the least dangerous global disaster I had ever seen, even less dangerous than so-called normal life. The self-imposed socioeconomic aftershock would be a different story, however, and I was anxious to see how the next few years would play out.
Over the course of the past four months my optimism had been smacked down with responses like “let’s see how positive you are when you get the virus”. Indeed, this was exactly the point. Eventually, every one of us would get the virus, or a virus, or something that killed us dead. Forget all the numbers floating around. For every one of us, the chance of dying was 100%. The point was how we chose to face this fact, and the virus exposed that most of us Americans did not handle it well. Informed optimism was always the best attitude in a disaster. Sickness may have begun in the mind, but so did health.
NOTE 1: Throughout this essay I’ve referred to the virus as “the virus” and “this thing” because even the name of it had become politicized, and I wanted to remain neutral. Just like the Hong Kong Flu in 1968, it seemed logical to call it the Wuhan Flu.
NOTE 2: There was something about the phrase “stay safe” that bothered me. This had become a common sign-off for many Americans during these times. Why not “stay healthy,” or “stay strong”? “Stay safe” sounded like the motto for helicopter parents, coddling the weak and afraid. The phrase had a “please take care of me,” “I’m a victim” feel to it. Oh you poor thing.
NOTE 3: I chose to write this in past tense because for me this whole thing was over by mid-March.