I Am Joe’s Blog:

July 17, 2020 • 8:21 PM

Not Really OK

There’s a social convention whereby people say, “How are you?” as a dressed-up synonym for hello. It’s not really an inquiry about your well-being, just an empty greeting, and the only allowable answer is “Fine. You?” We all know this.

However, in recent months, quite a few people—friends, colleagues, doctors, my kids’ teachers, and others—have asked a different sort of question. Something along the lines of “So tell me seriously. How are you and your family holding up these days? With, you know, everything that’s going on. Do you need anything? Are you OK?” Words to that effect, anyhow. More elaborate phrasings meant to convey that the inquiry is sincere rather than perfunctory, and that an honest response is welcomed.

So I answer truthfully. And for months, the honest answer has been: Not OK at all. I, and we, are in fact doing quite poorly. Since you asked.

Well, then brows furrow and expressions turn more serious and more detail is sought.

“Do you have…The Thing? Like, are you seriously ill?”

No. So far, at least, no one in my family has had symptoms more serious than the occasional headache or allergy-induced sniffles. As far as I know, we haven’t come in contact with anyone who has The Thing. Physically, we’re fine.

“Oh. Well, did you lose your job? Do you need money?”

Again, no. In terms of money, we’re no worse off than before. We’re not rich, but we’re in no immediate danger of going hungry or losing our home. Financially, we’re fine.

I’ve been through so many variations of those two questions that I now just summarize: No, we’re ambulatory and solvent (for now, anyway). Moving on.

Further questions may involve an inadequate supply of paper products (nope, we have plenty), the lack of social contact (not a problem for us introverts), uncertainty about the future (no worse than usual, I suppose), or worries about extended family (everybody’s safe, thanks). And sure, we’ll make the usual complaints about the incompetent government and systemic racism and the ridiculous state of the world in general, the United States in particular, and especially that specific idiot right over there who’s not wearing a mask. But that’s no different from anyone else and it’s not why we aren’t OK.

So then we have to spell it out.

We have two young kids at home. One is ten years old and sad not to be around his friends and away from school, but he’s coping admirably with everything, and soldiering through the distance learning and the boredom. He’s not at his happiest, but he’s fine. We’re super proud of him.

Our six-year-old, however, is autistic, is non-speaking, has a bunch of developmental and learning disabilities, and has severe problems with emotional regulation, to the point that he is on two different psychiatric meds to reduce the chances of him hurting himself or others, both of which things have occurred quite a few times. He is also not yet potty-trained, and has had significant lifelong sleep problems, despite the interventions of various doctors.

And you know what? That is all OK, even though in some respects it also sucks. We love and accept our son, and we deal with the hard things, because that’s what parents do.

Or at least we were dealing with the hard things.

In the beforetimes, our son was not only in a special-ed classroom at school (with an amazing and caring teacher) but also had a full roster of specialists helping him out with his various areas of need: speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, adaptive physical education, and so on. We also, during some periods of time, had folks coming to our house to work with him, and the (very) occasional babysitter or respite provider for a few hours here and there of grown-up time.

But we’ve had none of that since March. And now that we know schools won’t be open for in-person instruction in the fall, we have no idea when anyone other than the two of us will be able to help care for him in any way. It’s just us, at home, all the time.

Our son requires constant—and I do mean constant—attention, to the point that we have to have negotiations about when one of us can go to the bathroom so we’re sure an adult is within reach at all times. Leave him alone for five minutes and we’re very likely to have a tantrum, broken objects, bruises, and oh I don’t know, how about swallowed cat litter? That sort of thing.

When his school switched to distance learning, teachers started daily Zoom calls and everyone was eager to give us long lists of web-based activities. Unfortunately, our son is unable to use videoconferencing as a means of communication. He can’t speak, he can’t type, and he understands only a fraction of what he hears. And he doesn’t have a conceptual grasp of someone on a screen trying to interact with him. We’ve tried dozens of times, and it just goes nowhere. He also has close to zero tolerance for all the screen-based educational activities, matching games, read-along stories, and other stuff the school district so eagerly pushes.

Where that leaves us is that any education, therapy, or other attention he’s going to get has to come from us, the parents. The best anyone has been able to do is try to coach us on how to be his stand-in teachers.

The thing is, the fact that we’re at home all day, every day, doesn’t mean we don’t have to work. We have jobs—jobs that require actual work to occur many hours a day if we expect to remain solvent—and we can’t do our work while also attending to our child’s every need during his waking hours (which, as I indicated, are far too many and not at ideal times). I’m now dangerously, desperately behind on crucial work projects and slipping further behind every day.

Even before the governor issued statewide guidance about under what circumstances schools may or may not be open, our school district announced that the 2020–2021 school year would begin with distance learning only, further developments TBD depending on what happens with the pandemic. And let me just say: in terms of public health, that is absolutely the right call, and I agree with it.

Except.

Not all students are capable of being educated remotely. Our older son is; our younger son is not. So for all the rhetoric that education is non-negotiable, as far as we can tell, neither the state nor the school district has any plan to address the educational and developmental needs of children like ours who absolutely, positively cannot and will not learn by looking at a computer screen and for whom parental instruction is not feasible. His needs are not being met, not by a long shot, and neither are ours.

Thus the irreconcilable facts are:

  • It’s currently impossible (meaning unsafe and/or illegal) for our son to attend school or receive other in-person care appropriate to his needs.
  • Our child’s disabilities make it impossible for him to learn remotely.
  • We, the parents, lack the skills, the time, and the energy to meet his educational needs; and we desperately need to work.

You can see how that puts us in a no-win situation.

And, as a bonus fact, we are emotionally at the ends of our ropes. We have never gone so long without any quiet time alone (separately or jointly), and it’s driving us (especially my wife) positively bonkers. We’re perpetually anxious, grumpy, impatient, and agitated, but not for the same reasons as most people.

When someone asks how I’m doing and I say, “not OK” and then explain all this, the response is usually awkward silence followed by changing the subject. Because what can anyone say? What’s wrong isn’t a problem that can be solved with money or food or time or medicine. I have an intractable problem, with no realistic hope of a solution in the foreseeable future, and that is why I am not OK.

Of course, that’s not entirely true. Someone could solve my problem, and that person is the specific idiot right over there who’s not wearing a mask. Yes, you. You—and everyone else who seemingly care so little about other human beings that you would rather risk destroying lives than suffer the tiniest inconvenience or the barest slight to your image. You could fix this whole thing in a matter of weeks. You could, but the evidence I’ve seen so far suggests that you probably won’t. I may have no recourse but to stop wearing deodorant and washing my clothes. Then I can at least guarantee you’ll stay (much more than) six feet away from me.

I kid, but not really. Like many other people in similar situations, I’m very much not OK, and I’m surrounded by people who seem committed to keeping me that way.

Since you asked.

December 31, 2018 • 9:15 AM

The Obligatory 2018 Post

It’s the last day of 2018, and I thought I ought to get at least one post in during this calendar year.

Although I’m tempted to write a long story about all of the joys and challenges (OK, mostly challenges) in life and business, I don’t think that would be especially cathartic, and anyway my to do list is longer than yours, so I need to get back to it. With luck, I might be able to polish off everything that absolutely must happen before the end of 2018, no matter what, within six weeks. Maybe eight.

Through all the ups and downs in my life, I’ve noticed a recurring trend: that which is necessary somehow becomes possible. This coming year will be the biggest test of that concept yet, as some distinctly unprobable things have become necessary (where unprobable means even less probable than improbable, but just shy of impossible). I usually have to wait till the last minute (or, sometimes, a few days after the last minute) to find out how the unprobable becomes possible, which is pretty nerve-wracking. It’ll be…interesting.

Because my circumstances are not conducive to any appreciable amount of blogging or social media involvement for the time being, those of you wanting to be better informed about my goings-on or (gasp!) interact with me personally are quite welcome to send me email, and I hope you will. And if you’d like to send me something for my birthday next week, I can always use a large box of money, or some black socks.

May 1, 2017 • 10:00 AM

2017: The Year I Take Control

Back in January I turned 50. I dyed my hair purple, threw a big party, and psyched myself up for the next half century (or as much of it as I’m privileged to experience). As one does upon reaching such milestones, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the past and pondering the future. I’d been growing increasingly interested in doing new things, making more of a contribution to the world, and avoiding the huge peaks and valleys of income that come from living off of book royalties and the occasional odd consulting gig. So I formed a plan that I intended to put into action over the course of 2017 that would accomplish all of the above.

Well, life is funny. I can’t tell you how many times I imagined that things would go in a certain direction (personally or professionally), and spent months or years planning for a certain future, only to encounter some random thing at the last minute that took me down a completely different, unexpected, and (usually) delightful path. In fact, this has happened so consistently throughout my life that I should have anticipated that it would happen again right about now. Anyway, guess what? It happened again, in a pretty big way.

I’ve now become the owner and publisher of Take Control Books. That is, my little company (alt concepts inc.) has acquired Take Control Books from TidBITS Publishing Inc.’s owners, Adam and Tonya Engst. In the process, I’ve upgraded my title from Author to Publisher, and I’ve embarked on a new career (even if, in some respects, it’s an expansion or continuation of my old career).

None of this was even remotely part of my plan. I thought I’d be tapering off my involvement with Take Control and doing other stuff—more of certain activities I’m already doing, plus an entirely new project that I thought might really scratch my various itches. But I’d barely gotten underway with this ambitious scheme when Adam and Tonya said they were thinking of selling Take Control and asked if I might like to buy it.

I have a pretty rich imagination, and I’ve often daydreamed about other things I might do with my life if I weren’t a full-time tech author. But not once, in the nearly 14 years that I’ve been writing books for Take Control, did the thought even briefly flit through my mind that I might buy my own publisher. It took me a while to wrap my head around it.

For starters, it’s not like I had a huge sum of cash in the bank that I could just hand over to purchase this business. That could have been a deal-breaker, but Adam and Tonya felt the advantages of having me as an owner (since I know the business intimately and could maintain continuity better than anyone else) were worth some inconvenience. So we developed a fairly elaborate payment scheme to ensure that all parties will have enough to live on. In fact, assuming our projections are at least in the ballpark, my total annual income should go up a bit, even after factoring in the cost of the business. It’s a pretty sweet arrangment.

But there were other factors to consider. I didn’t exactly have loads of surplus time either, and becoming a publisher is going to require an immense amount of work. I think I know how I’m going to cope with that, but as any parent can tell you, the first few months (or longer) with a new kid mean a lot of sleepless nights. So, I’ve stocked up on coffee. I am nervous about how work will cut into the time available for my kids (especially the little one, who needs an extraordinary amount of attention because he’s autistic), and vice versa. That’s going to be a challenge. And I’ve had to accept that some of my erstwhile goals and plans will have to be back-burnered for now, which makes me a little bit sad, but not too sad, because running Take Control is less risky and more likely to produce stable income in the near future than my speculative projects. Besides, my new work is interesting enough and challenging enough that I probably won’t be pining for something else before I have the resources to make it happen.

One curious aspect of running Take Control is that it’s in my best interest to keep writing books, even as I’m publishing other people’s books. I won’t have as much time to write as I did before, and I still do want to reduce my frantic pace (an average of four books a year for 14 years, geez), but the math works out better, at least for the first stretch of time, if I write at least a couple of new books per year and keep most of my older ones up to date. In that respect, it feels a bit like I’m adding a second full-time job, but again, I have plenty of coffee.

Fortunately, I won’t be doing this alone. My wife, Morgen, was already an employee of alt concepts inc., but she’s upgrading her title as well, to Director of Marketing and Publicity. Her to do list is nearly as long as mine, and I think our abilities will complement each others’ nicely. In addition, TidBITS will provide customer service and other kinds of support on a contract basis, and Tonya will continue editing some of our books. And of course our brilliant freelance authors and editors will keep doing their thing. So I think we’ll be in good shape.

This is, without question, the biggest thing that has ever happened in my career. It’s exciting and scary. Wish me luck!

June 23, 2016 • 11:59 AM

The Mid-2016 Update

People often refer to me as a prolific writer. I suppose that’s true in the sense that I’ve written 60-ish books and hundreds of articles and spend pretty much every waking hour writing still more. But one thing I certainly am not is a prolific blogger. When I see, as I recently did, that my last post here was over a year ago, I start to think maybe it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to post a little something just to keep up appearances. I can’t guarantee that the next one won’t require a similar wait. I’m far from idle; it’s just that this particular means of expression is currently pretty low on my long list of priorities.

One of the things I’ve been up to lately is writing a brand-new Joe On Tech guide (Speeding Up Your Mac) and updating my three previous guides (Troubleshooting Your Mac, Maintaining Your Mac, and Backing Up Your Mac). If you’re a Mac user, I invite you to check out those books; I think you’ll find them helpful.

Even the Joe On Tech guides have been a bit of an interruption in my schedule, since I’ve also been up to my ears writing new and revised Take Control books, testing and documenting new apps, delivering presentations to various groups, trying to keep up with my energetic kids (the youngest of whom was recently diagnosed with autism), and dealing with assorted crises. As a counterpoint to the craziness of work and life, however, I’ve been getting much more serious about my practice of t’ai chi. I’ve joined an advanced class taught by world-renowned t’ai chi expert Chris Luth, and I only wish I could afford to spend hours a day practicing, because it improves my attitude more than just about anything (with the possible exception of chocolate). I also find myself going to an actual gym and doing actual cardio and strength training workouts, sometimes as often as a few times a week. It feels bizarre to write that sentence in that my self-image has never included any form of athleticism, but life is full of surprises.

On further reflection, I think it would be an excellent idea to post here more frequently—perhaps as often as twice a year! Why, in just six and a half months I’ll be turning 50, and that seems like an auspicious time for reflection and further updates.

Until next time!