July 549th

my 2020 review

Posted by Etiene Dalcol on 549/07/2019

Today is March 303rd for many. People are still living in the same mental cycle that started along with the coronavirus pandemic. Death to 2020, a Netflix comedy by the same creators of Black Mirror, makes fun of the fact that important world events like the Australian fires did happen still this year, and not longer ago as our emotional memory might suggest. We divide time in years because seasons are enough of an event to mark the passage of time, but sometimes other events are more alluring to our perception. In this sense, quantitatively measuring time, as in a 12-month period, fits the first greek word for "time", chronos (χρόνος), while qualitative critical moment seizing and sequencing fits kairos (καιρός). I hadn't updated my blog since 2017, but my current καιρός started 18 months ago. For me, today is 2019-07-549.

Καλοκαίρι 🌻

kalokairi: summer (good+time*)

As I have mentioned in this blog before, I have been dealing with depression and anxiety on and off since as far as my memory goes, but officially since I was a teenager. It's been an "on" moment since I moved to the UK in 2016, marked by the time I threw my housewarming party and precisely 0 of the people I invited showed up, but which was progressing to the closest I've been to "off" since.

June 2019 was a great month. I was financially on track to quit my fancy job and work less so I could restart the MSc I had interrupted last time I was too overwhelmed. I had not smoked for months. It was one of the very few moments in my life where I was fit and accustomed to exercises, I had run different 10Ks and was preparing to run a half-marathon. The running gave me a lot of time and focus to absorb other hobbies, like listening to audiobooks or studying foreign languages. My boyfriend and I had just spent holidays in Greece, my favorite place on Earth. Where previously had been a person with energy only for work and resting from work, was then a person feeling well enough to iterate on the life quality aspects and make big plans: finish a research masters, move to Spain, transform my source of income to something that gave me more autonomy over my time, restart building a social life.

Then one day after a run my knee felt weird, then days later, my hip, then some time after that, my back.

Κακοκαίρια ⛈

I had to stop running, which was disastrous for my routine, structure, energy, and focus. This was the onset of months of being in bed crying from physical pain, visits to multiple doctors with no avail, many physiotherapy sessions, and many different drugs. The pain was enough to consume my thoughts all day long, being a huge obstacle to focus at work. But I had just proceeded with my resignation and by the point I could assess my situation and seek help, I was already no longer formally employed. I still feel very naive when I think about all that, but it's not my main point of contempt from that period of time. I was still protected by the NHS, I still had private health care, I still had my savings, and I had and still have a very supporting partner. My main issue was that being mentally healthy was already hard for me when my body was healthy, but now it was just impossible. It felt like the whole whole progress I fought so hard to gain was suddenly on the trash. And not only that, but also all my plans that had been enabled by that progress. Things got really grimm.

At some point some months later, feeling a bit better but while still in a lot of pain, I felt I just had to suck it up and start doing the contracting work I had financially planned to do. I felt things were still possible if I just tried harder. I went through a medical procedure that was supposed to fix my problems and went to Brazil so I could spend some time recovering in good weather and near my family. "Now things will take a turn upwards", I thought. But the procedure just ate away some muscle mass leaving a concavity on my right butt and didn't fix the pain. The time I thought I would spend back home recovering and getting some comfort turned into a new search for doctors and was occupied by more physiotherapy. Despite that, my stay there was going well. Despite my boyfriend falling and breaking a foot. Despite my dad falling and breaking two ribs. Despite me accidentally missing the deadline of a uni assignment I had in fact done just because in the midst of it all I forgot and was too overwhelmed for any resubmission paperwork. That didn't matter because I was finally able to go on short hikes again which was a huge milestone and Christmas 2019 was lovely. It was such a happy time with my family, and I even thought I could make plans again, like having them over in London for my graduation or spending new year's eve camping with friends in a paradise beach.

And then my mom died. In front of me. Heart attack. Two of them, in fact. She started feeling unwell so we took her to the emergency where the heart attack was confirmed and she was kept in hospital. Some days later she was feeling a lot better and was moved from the critical zone to the one I could visit, but in my first visit she collapsed and I gave her CPR while screaming for help. Nurses ran with her bed back to the critical zone while I was still on the top of her giving CPR. She woke up only enough time for my dad and my brother to see her one last time, to have a doctor reprimand her for trying to pull her oxygen off, beg god to kill her, and start seizing, which was when the doctor had to shoo me away.

I cancelled my flight back to London and spent the following months collecting and separating her things for charity, and just being there for dad, who was working on the legal/financial paperwork and spending his days busy trying to fix his car by himself. I stopped contracting but tried making myself busy as well. When I was too overwhelmed from handling mom's stuff, I would stop and try to catch up on some lecture recordings or work on my MSc. project idea, which turned out to be Polygloss.

One of the worst parts of that time was sleeping. I had nightmares of my mom dying over and over again, in different situations, car crash, drawning, fire, you name it. In all of them she couldn't breath and I would desperately try to save her but couldn't. I could find ways to distract myself and pretend all day long that I was ok, but at night and in the silence there was no escaping. And there was no physiotherapy and pain meds in the world that could offset the effect of that on my general health.

Once things were more or less settled in Brazil, I decided to go back to London so I could be with my partner, try to finish my masters, and try to recover (again). That was the first week of March...

I needed so much and so desperately for things to take a turn upwards, but I only saw two friends, went to two lectures, and had two pilates sessions before the country was taken by the pandemic and everything started shutting down. Recovering in the midst of panic was impossible and my sleep only got worse. My walks were restricted to night scared walks when the park nearby was desert. I didn't see anyone else apart from my partner. There was no way I could go back to contracting in my state and situation, so I had to prepare for a different financial situation and be dependent on my partner. And it was exams and dissertation time.

Luckily there was some miracle movement in that pilates session, which I kept trying to reproduce at home as another way of not going full couch potato, because my leg drastically improved like 50%. Another luck was that, due to the pandemic, many of the processes in university were updated, and I was able to get more time to work on assignments I hadn't delivered when I was in Brazil with relatively little paperwork. I doubt things are going to stay like this post-pandemic, but I strongly suggest every person involved in gatekeeping help and punishing students for having concerns in life to reconsider the utility of this task in the future.

Itzamna

Time can be viewed linearly, like in the Abrahamic world-view, or in cycles, like in the Mayans.

These last months were a sequence of gaining hope and then losing hope. In a way, I hoped that this catastrophe would give space for re-evaluating how many systems work, especially the ways in which it doesn't properly support people in distress. I thought that such horrifying events would expose how capitalism is failing society. How the way homeless people are treated is untennable, how stigmatizing poverty is useless and dangerous, how the relationship between work and its rewards is so broken, how the suffering of some is direct consequence of the capital accumulation of others, how proper access to healthcare and proper housing is paramount, how the elite uses racism as a tool to divide and conquer, how access to information is in a major crisis despite high connectivity, how connectivity can make or break your education, how things outside work are so important, how everything is a fucking shitshow. I thought at least in some areas everyone would be forced to make some concessions, and in doing that they would realize the outcome would be so positive they could have made the same concessions since a long time ago and would continue with them indefinitely. But in the countries where I was born, live, and am heavily influenced by culturally and at my work industry (Brazil, UK and US), poor people are still being governed by the holy trinity of imbeciles and being treated like shit. The US might be out of the idiot orgy soon, but with no effects to this establishment. Western culture is fundamentally fucked.

Work as a fascist tool of control

"Works sets you free" is a nazi slogan found at the entry of Auschwitz and other concentration camps, repeated by Donald Trump's senior campaign adviser when advocating for removal of Covid-19 restrictions, and used in the local Brazilian variation "work builds character" by Bolsonaro when defending child labor.

I expected some major revolution in Work, during the pandemic. But nothing major changed and, unless something new happens, nothing major will. Now, maybe you will say there was a work revolution. A lot of people are working from home now. Right. Take it from someone who has worked remotely since way before the pandemic: besides the elimination of commute and some other practical aspects which I agree are very beneficial, not only there are some downsides which we need to be aware of, but also it definitely does not change the nature of work itself in the slightest. It's still the same work as before. If you are good at your job in the office, you will still be good at your job wherever you want to be. If you are overworked and micromanaged in the office, you will still be overworked and micromanaged wherever you thought you could hide. I can make a whole blog post only about this topic, so I will not go into more details here. But it changes less things than some think it does, especially in a world that is not prepared bureaucratically or culturally for work distribution, asynchronous communication, managing flexible expectations and trusting people.

The people who have the privilege to work from home are, however, just a portion of the workforce during this pandemic. There are people working in essential face-to-face jobs, like healthcare, some of which paid so miserably people need multiple jobs to make ends meet. There are people being forced to work face-to-face, regardless of when it's essential or not, like teachers in the UK. There are people who were laid off in mass, many by companies that grow unnaturally for fake numbers to please VCs and then use periods of crisis as an excuse to clean the payroll, only to hire for the same positions shortly after, rinse and repeat. There are people with no formal job contracts to begin with, freelancers, sole traders, small family businesses, and people in the gig economy, like hairdressers or uber drivers, where no hours of work equals no food on the table. There is no optics under which this is a good thing. I have watched my dad do enough things like go to work with a broken foot for 14 hours and take no vacations ever to have a thorough understanding that the impact of the virus on countries like Brazil and the US would be devastating without UBI or something similar.

People are being expected to risk conducting business as usual or starve as some bizarre ritualistic sacrifice to "the economy". Given there is intentionally little time for citizens under full-time employment to organize, I would think that in places where unemployment is now through the roof and there is no aid, some uproar could happen. Something [1] [2] is happening but I'm not sure if under a scale that can overcome the stigmatizing of poverty and the still ongoing cultural notion that people must do something to deserve access to basic humanity. Certainly the fact that getting together to protest also exposes people to risk does not help. The fact remains that there is little to challenge how people are supposed to dedicate to work.

Failing upwards

I considered dropping out of the masters multiple times. At one point I even decided I would, and contacted the university to understand my options. I explained to them I was jobless, in physical and emotional pain, struggling to study and process information, on the verge of giving up not just from the degree but from everything, that I wanted support about dropping out, that I wanted to understand what would happen to the gigantic tuition fees I had paid them, and if there was any way of getting some part of it back. I was met with an automated answer regarding the possibility to fill a form to maybe schedule a very short call with some support person some point in the future, 10 pages of links to different websites, handbooks, mental health webinars and tips like "exercise more". I stared at the email for some minutes crying, failing to process entirely whatever was in it, incredibly overwhelmed to take any action, and deleted it.

I decided to go for a different type of giving up: inertia. "Fuck this", I said, "I will do whatever, I just want to get rid of this, pass or not". While the following months were still awful, for some reason this mindset was fundamental in getting me unstuck just enough to succeed on rage alone. I graduated with distinction and I will forever keep nothing but deep hatred for that institution.

New season

I am now expected to work again and I don't know if I can or want to make that work, so I decided I would try to find a part-time job. One can imagine this would be easy as a senior software engineer. In an industry as heated as tech desperate for talent and given the logistics of the job, this was one of the few jobs barely affected by the current crisis. However, if there is one industry deep into hustle porn, riddled with mental health issues, and very averse to the idea of taking time off for anything that isn't making you more money or making you better at your job, that is also tech. Employers can't even conceive the idea that someone can work part-time. Especially in the start-up world where some of my skills are a big fit (lots of early stage experience, language agnostic very generalist tech capable of tackling a product head-to-toes, wore so many hats, likes training people).

Here is an example of how one of my exchanges job hunting went. I was talking to a founder who was hiring:

"Is working part time an option?"

"No, we are looking for the first employees to build the MVP. Why part-time?"

explains that I need more time than work and resting from work

"Sorry, we are really looking for people to get the MVP out of the door."

Most of my interactions went in a variation of that. Sometimes I internally laughed because I knew I could do exactly what they needed and more and I thought I dodged a bullet, but the fact remained I was still unemployed. There were some companies that seemed enough open to part-time to advance me in the interview stages. Still someone would eventually ask me something that hinted "would you be flexible to crunch when needed?" and I would run. Things were looking grimm again.

Throughout this year I joked about leaving tech many times, and often it was not a joke at all. I started seriously planning what I would do once I was able to move away from London. The current top-of-list is trying to start a plant shop. Other serious items in the list were coffee shop and translating, and the not so serious was retreating into some middle-of-nowhere to raise goats and make cheese.

In the end I did get two offers for part-time jobs, still in tech but not in the tech industry per se. More on that in the next καιρός...;


Recommended watchings and readings of the year:

Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach.

Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber.

Teaching to Transgress, Bell Hooks.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty.

The open veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano.