From high in the mountains, a lesson on resiliency during the age of the coronavirus

I’ve learned a lot from the mountains. A deep love for conservation, for starters. An appreciation of their scale and power, too. And in climbing them, I’ve picked up lessons in endurance, situational awareness and tolerance for risk.

But success in the peaks can be summed up in one word: resilience.

The toughness implied in that word is all-encompassing. A successful summit attempt (and that sometimes means turning back short of the top) is based on the resilience of your body, mind and spirit. If you come up short in these areas, the chances of failure — and potentially harm — rise dramatically.

Resilience is a word that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Before the Great Recession, my household income was at its peak. But there were areas of weakness that would be exposed when times got tough, and I learned a lot from that. “Never again,” I told myself, hoping to avoid the pitfalls that befell me when I lost my job and had to find work in a new town. As best as I could, I tried to figure out how to become more resilient when storms appear on the horizon.

And just like that, here we are. The arrival of COVID-19 brought a pandemic to our country, and with it came an immediate recession. We’re being told to stay home, work remotely and go out only for essential business. Nearly 17 million people are out of work. And millions more, like me, are losing income from furloughs or loss of customers. That doesn’t take into account the hundreds of thousands who have become sick with this nasty virus.

It reminded me of that word, and how important resilience is. I’ve thought about it a lot over the past year, and it’s come into sharp focus over the past month. Here’s how I see that term playing out now:

You need to be physically resilient. Like any disease, this new coronavirus is particularly cruel to those whose health is already compromised. I’m reminded of a poster that graced the wall of a gym I used to go to that had one short line written at the bottom: The stronger you are, the harder you are to kill. Physical fitness, a healthy diet and proper sleep are your weapons to defend against not only the virus, but also the stress that comes with it, and the economic hardships that have befallen us as a result. Find ways to be active. Walk, run, ride your bike, lift weights. Eat healthy foods, not just comfort foods that taste good, but aren’t nutritionally valuable. Get your sleep. These habits are what make athletes great, and they work well for the rest of us, too. Not only can you make your body more fit, but a good exercise routine will help work off stress. And remember that poster: If you’re stronger and fitter, you’ll be a better survivor.

You need to be mentally resilient. Mental toughness is critical when hard times arrive. Create in yourself a mindset that accepts that things aren’t ideal, then launch your efforts from there. In other words, you know that things suck, so what can you do about it? Train yourself to work with the facts and circumstances as they are, not what they used to be. If you’re facing some time off from your job, see if there are things you can learn that will expand your marketable knowledge and skills. Keep your mind active, working and thinking toward solutions to the problems you’re currently facing. A proactive, engaged mind will propel you toward making decisions on your terms rather than repeatedly reacting to — or knuckling under — new challenges. Give yourself some grace when you feel overwhelmed. But in so doing, stay the course and don’t stay too long in those moments of anxiety and sadness. Use the tools at your disposal the manage your mind and your emotions.

Build resilience in your finances. This is a tough one, because most of us are a paycheck or two away from disaster. Part of that is the reality of where wages are for middle class and lower-income workers. But also, some of that is our fault. Personal finance gurus like Dave Ramsey suggest having an emergency fund that’s equal to 6-9 months of income, and personally, I think that’s unrealistic for most people. But he has a point. Having an emergency fund to make up for lost income is critical. Pay down your debts as much as possible. And given where we’re at now, it’s high time to cut expenses. Take a hard look at all those monthly box subscription services, online streaming services and other expenses you have. Sort them out by “wants” and “needs,” and be honest about it. Build up the ability to be able to weather this storm or, if needed, be able to quickly pick up and move to where new job opportunities are. And when this downturn passes, keep up these new habits. Chances are, you can get by maintaining your old car, not using credit cards and ordering fewer things on Amazon instead of falling into old free-spending habits that weaken your financial position. And if at all possible, avoid dipping into retirement savings. Sometimes it’s impossible, but resist that as long as you can as it’s incredibly difficult to make those losses down the road.

Work on your spiritual resilience. In this case, you can find comfort and inner strength by embracing your faith. Find time to dive into those sacred texts and pray. Look for wisdom there to help you deal with the stresses, questions and anger that confronts you. These are often quiet, solitary times that will allow you to slow down, see things more clearly and inform the decisions you make and actions you take.

And even if you’re not a religious person, you can still apply “spiritual” practices that will make you inwardly stronger. Find time to be alone in a quiet setting, be still, breathe deep. Go on a long walk, ride or run. Maybe do some gardening. Or yoga. These activities have rhythmic, meditative or peaceful attributes that parallel what many religious people find when they pray and meditate on scriptures. Meditative practices tend to unclutter your mind and create inner peace.

I know that some of us are going to get trucked over the next several months. The Great Recession jacked me up for years, and frankly, I never fully recovered from the losses of that downturn. But I learned from it. My hope is that we can weather this and come out OK on the other side. We can’t control a lot of the bigger forces at work, but we can put on our own personal armor and steel ourselves for the challenges ahead. Truth is, we don’t have another option because giving in is no option at all.

And that brings me back to what I’ve learned on the mountain. The peaks can be beautiful, peaceful and energizing. But they can be scary, dangerous and even violent places, too. Getting to the top — or getting off the mountain safely — is often a combination of enjoyment, effort, fear and wisdom. The constant is it’s never easy. But another constant for those who have had success in the mountains is that they are resilient. And resiliency is a character trait from which we can all benefit now.

Bob Doucette

The Covid Chronicles continue: Losing income, friends getting sick, and finding ways to deal

Innovate where you can, bro.

This was going to be a fun weekend. That was the plan, anyway. I’ve got a longtime friend from Colorado who’s probably forgotten more about backpacking then I’ve ever learned, and over the winter he invited me to join him and a group of college kids who were going to do a four-day trip into the backcountry of Arkansas’ Devil’s Den State Park. He was teaching a university course on the subject, and the trip was a way to practice what they’d learned.

Needless to say, the trip isn’t happening. Not after all this virus stuff. And I get it. Aside from the contagion risk of meeting up with a group of people from all over the place, and potentially getting or transmitting the bug to people we’d meet in the towns leading to the park, it’s  not a good idea. I think you could still get away with a close-by solo camping or backpacking trip, but even then, it’s not a great bet.

Again, this is a small problem in an ever-growing sea of much bigger ones. And some of those have hit home.

Last week, 3.3 million people applied for unemployment assistance as the first big wave of layoffs hit following nationwide orders that “non-essential” businesses close until the COVID-19 outbreak is subdued. That was a record, some four or five times more than the previous mark. This week, that astounding number was dwarfed by the 6.6 million who applied. Those are jaw-dropping statistics, and frankly, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be looking for a new job in these conditions. What we see unfolding now might make the Great Recession look mild, and we all know how painful that was.

Personally, I knew the other shoe was going to drop sometime. Working in the news business, we’re heavily dependent on two sources of revenues: subscriptions and advertising. The good news is that subscriptions and online readership are up. The bad news is that advertising is way down, and seeing that advertising is a huge part of how my employer makes money, the pain is sharp. What that means is everyone in the company is going to have to eat two weeks of furloughs — unpaid leave — over the next three months. That’s a bunch of money we won’t be getting, but I still consider myself lucky that I’m employed. Being laid off is far worse. I’ll weather it and hope that things calm down soon. But I’m not counting on it.

As for other things going on: My neighbor, the older fella who got sick with the virus, is on the mend. Great news, because we were worried about him.

But I’ve got another friend who is in the middle of his own coronavirus odyssey. He’s a doctor who, a couple of weeks ago, was in front of a suburban city council urging them to enact stricter stay-at-home measures to stop the spread of the virus. A week later, he came down with the virus himself.

He texted me the news a little less than a week ago, telling me he thinks he caught it while treating patients at a hospital north of Tulsa. The availability of personal protection equipment — N95 masks, face shields, etc. — is limited, and at that hospital it was only given to staff who were treating people with confirmed cases. In his case, he was seeing patients who were thought to be potential cases based on their symptoms, thus he didn’t have the gear given to him that others got. And hence, the infection.

You can read more about what he had to say about it here. The weekend and early part of this week was rough, so I’m hoping things get better for him soon. I can’t express the worry I feel for those in health care right now.

On a lighter subject, I’m still learning new ways to stay active. I might not be backpacking, but I’ve found ways to use backpacks for fitness. Nothing like loading up a backpack and doing walking lunges up the hill. I think that loaded pack might find other uses, too, and I’m still looking for other ways to challenge myself physically. I don’t see my gym opening up for another couple of months, so I gotta make do.

And for now, we’re still allowed to go outside to walk, run or bike as long as we keep our distance. I do hill repeats on the bike. I go run. The other day, I decided to run one of my downtown routes, mostly just to see how things look with so much locked down.

It’s quiet. Parking garages are empty. No one is going into restaurants. Car traffic is light. If I wanted, I could probably run across most downtown intersections without even bothering to look for traffic. Construction is ongoing at two high-rises, but other than that the only “activity” I saw was a guy walking into an eatery with a box full of supplies. I’m assuming the restaurant is still doing takeout and delivery. But I worry about the Tulsa Arts District and all the businesses that are there. Restaurants, bars, taprooms and concert venues are all closed. The baseball park is empty and will stay that way.

This Friday would be the First Friday Arts Walk, which usually brings hundreds of people there to tour the museums. A park there usually hosts free outdoor concerts. If there was a baseball game scheduled, thousands more would come. Add a show or two and hundreds or thousands would be added to their numbers, and the Arts District would be hopping. This weekend? It’ll be a dead zone.

And for good reason. Coronavirus infections are spiking, hospitalizations are surging, and deaths are beginning to mount.

It’s hard for everyone, even if you’re not sick. We’re losing income. Jobs. Missing friends. Unable to see family. And all those travel plans are toast. All of it’s been replaced by boredom at home, worries about money and the overhanging dread of the question: “What if I get sick?”

And I think that’s why I’ve been adamant about exercising. I haven’t missed a workout yet. I’m still running. Yeah, none of this is as epic as the lifts at the gym or as fun as those group runs and races we’re missing now. And it’s OK to grieve that. But you have to find something to cope with it.

So that’s my goal for next week, and every week going forward until life gets back to some sort of normal. I hope you can do the same. Find that things to help you deal.

Bob Doucette

In COVID World, daily disruption is the new normal

My gym is closed, so my house is now my gym. Welcome to COVID World.

Strange times, man. That’s the only way I can think of it.

I’m a creature of routines, and for the most part they’ve served me well. I get up roughly the same time every day. Eat breakfast. My workout times are set, and it all dovetails nicely within my work schedule. I set aside time to write, sometimes for myself, sometimes for those of you reading here.

But it’s different now. My routines have been disrupted. Hell, all of our routines have been given one big ole flat tire on the highway of life.

COVID-19, the lovely little coronavirus that up until a couple of months ago was a curiosity to those of us in the West, has overturned our collective apple cart. Like it or not, we’re all having to adjust to this janky new normal.

A lot of what’s been altered is a series of first-world problems that are actually deeper than the term implies. After my city ordered most public service businesses to shut down, I lost access to my gym. Goodbye squat rack, sayonara deadlift platform, adios bench press and all the big bars and plates that go with them. What I’ve got at home: A scattering of smaller dumbbells, one kettlebell and some TRX straps. There’s a place on my back porch where I can do chin-ups, and I have my bike. I’m making a go of it, but it’s off to a bumpy start.

Saying that, I know there’s more to this crisis than a loss of my gym membership. At work, we’re enforcing social distancing. Some people are working on another floor now. Others are working from home. We’re doing a whole lot of G-chat to communicate, and adjusting to a workflow that’s unfamiliar and a little clunky. I’m sure we’ll get used to it. But again, it’s more disruption.

Comparatively speaking, my issues are  small. Others all around me are suffering much more.

This week, thousands of workers in all areas of the hospitality industry lost their jobs. Gone like the morning dew in a matter of hours, all because public safety had to trump commerce, even if that meant folks losing work. With the downturn has also come serious hits to aerospace, the airlines and the oil business. Before you scoff at the losses of big companies, keep in mind that tens of thousands of people in my city alone work in these areas. So do family members of mine in Texas. Layoffs for them loom large as corporations face the grim reality that a sea of red ink is about to swamp their finances for months to come, if not longer.

Having been on the losing side of such job cuts in the last recession, I can tell you that I feel for folks who have already lost work or are about to. And yeah, I’m nervous for my own liveliehood, too.

And cutting to the heart of it is this: Community spread of COVID-19 — that is, the disease being communicated freely in the population — is here in Tulsa, and one person has died. The man was a healthy person in his 50s who was diagnosed with the disease one day before he passed.

And as you read this, I learned only hours ago that a man in my own neighborhood was diagnosed with the new coronavirus. He’s quarantined in his house, fighting it off at home so far.

As I see it, disruption is all around, and more of it is to come. Stricter measures have been laid down almost daily, and yet I know from following this story since December that the U.S. is about two months behind the curve in responding to it. It’s probably going to get rougher before dawn breaks.

So sure, I miss my gym. I miss the races that all got canceled. I’ll miss the restaurants that had to shutter, and the movies that won’t play at the theater. The city streets are quiet, spring festivals canceled and plenty of uncertainty and fear lies ahead. This storm seems to be just getting warmed up.

I can’t say exactly how to respond to all this, other than trying to do what the scientists say. I’ll keep working. I’ll read more. Binge-watch a few more shows.

And I suppose I’ll go out to my back porch and do my chin-ups. It’s the best I can do to salvage some of my routines, virus or not.

Bob Doucette