Coronacation 2020

My older son Brenden says I need to blog more, so…

As you probably know, COVID-19 has decimated the airline industry, among all the other havoc it’s wrought. Compared to last year, the TSA is screening about 95 percent fewer passengers each day, sometimes under 100,000 people nationwide. Southwest is hemorrhaging cash. Instead of our normal 4000-ish daily flights, we’re operating around 1000 and have parked a couple hundred aircraft. Even with the drastically reduced scheduled, our flights are still mostly empty. Currently the dispatch department is paying everyone their full salary but only staffing about half the desks to aid in social distancing.

Needless to say, this isn’t sustainable.

Fortunately, the changes at work have limited the spread. We’ve only had one confirmed case in our office, and it happened in March. However, it’s still strange and sad to see our headquarters look like a ghost town as the non-operational employees work from home and only half the operational ones are there. I dispatched an Oakland to Honolulu flight last week that had two passengers. That works out to two flight attendants for each passenger.

To preserve cash during this jaw-dropping downturn in travel, Southwest is offering its employees the chance to stay home for a month at a time with full benefits and a fraction of their salary. They’re calling it Emergency Time Off (ETO). After doing the math and discussing it with Jenny, I volunteered for May. As of April 26, I am on coronacation™ for six weeks. I return to work June 8.

Yes, this is going to sting, but we’ll be okay. I’m grateful to still have a job. Over 26 million people have lost theirs over the last few weeks.

Southwest in Crisis Mode

I started at Southwest in June 2001, fresh out of college as a rookie technical writer in the IT department. A few months later, another event shocked the industry and evaporated demand for air travel: September 11. All commercial flights were grounded for two days. Nobody knew whether people would want to fly again after that. Millions of people canceled their flight reservations. At any other airline, I would have been laid off immediately. But Southwest doesn’t believe in layoffs. Our leaders let me and every other employee keep our jobs, even though they knew the risk. By taking care of their people, they won my loyalty for life. And over time, people starting flying again.

This year, Southwest is facing the biggest challenge in our history. My coronacation is a little way for me to give back to the company that saved my career and has been so good to my family over the last 18+ years.

Life Before and After COVID-19

So…now what?

My pre-rona life was a lot more hectic. I worked a lot of overtime trying to chip away at the mortgage, save up for travel, pay down one car or save up for the next one, fund house projects, and save for the boys’ college. When I wasn’t at work, I drove the boys to and from the pool, watched their meets, stayed in shape by running and cycling, helped out around the house, and tried to get enough sleep. It was a nice life but very busy. When I had a day off that didn’t involve a meet or a family event, I felt a little guilty and disappointed that I wasn’t working overtime to get ahead. I’m supposed to be productive, dangit!

Enter COVID-19.

Only half of the scheduled dispatchers actually come in to work so we can have an empty desk in between each of us. Open shifts are covered not by overtime, but by the on-call people, so overtime is all but gone until this passes. I only worked 8 shifts in April. I was on-call for several other shifts but only got activated once.

The virus has impacted each person in their own way. It forced me to slow down, to breathe, to relax, to reevaluate my life and how I spend my time and what my priorities are.

Despite the stay-at-home order and various nagging questions, this has actually been nice. Our kids have a weekday routine – breakfast, workout, school, lunch, clean something, free time / family time, dinner. The boys no longer have swim/dive practice in the evening, so we can relax and hang out instead of driving back and forth to the pool three times each evening. I run or ride three times a week but don’t have to squeeze them after work or on a rare day off. I sleep more and am less irritable as a result. Jenny and I go on walks and talk and catch Pokemon. We taught the boys how to play spades and got smoked by them in Super Smash Bros. I introduced them to a couple of my favorite movies. We might do a Lord of the Rings movie marathon like Jenny and I did before the boys came along. I cleaned out and reorganized the garage and linen closet, knocked out the huge pile of filing I’d put off for far too long, and diagnosed and replaced a bad circuit breaker that was turning off our fridge. I’ve FaceTimed with my mom and my 93-year-old grandfather. I finished a fascinating book called A Woman of No Importance, which is about an American woman with one leg that served as an amazingly effective spy in France during World War II. My next goal is to finally finish reading the novel version of Les Miserables (too many words, Victor Hugo!!!), the basis of my favorite musical. I also hope to dust off my guitar and see if my fingers still work.

The other day I ate lunch alone on the porch – no electronics reminding me that society is collapsing, no one to talk to, just me and a gorgeous spring day. The sun was out. A healthy breeze rustled the trees, shimmering in various shades of green and full of life. A pair of beautiful red-shouldered hawks swooped in and perched on our fence. That brief half-hour of quiet reminded me that life is indeed going on, even with the deadly virus, and that I get to choose what to focus on.

This feels a bit like retirement, except that my kids are still young and my body still works. So although it won’t be much fun financially, I am grateful for the opportunity to help Southwest and to spend so much time relaxing and enjoying life with my family as we try to stay healthy and sane.

On the bright side, it’s easier to save money when you aren’t supposed to do anything. We had booked and largely paid for a summer camp for the boys and a trip to San Francisco for us in early June. COVID-19 has canceled both of them, which (sadly) freed up some funds. Their swim and dive clubs are on hiatus, which saves cash. We’re deferring expenses, canceling extra mortgage payments, eating out much less, reducing our contributions to the boys’ college funds, and burning some of our savings that we can use to get through May.

I’m also well aware that we’re in an extraordinarily privileged position just to have the option to help my employer survive by taking a month off.

The boys are taking it pretty well. Jonathan, our social butterfly, really misses people. Jenny and I are trying to accommodate him by spending time with him each day – cards, chess, video games, bike rides, trampoline time, art projects. Brenden, our introvert, doesn’t feel as lonely but laments that he hasn’t been inside another building besides our house in over a month. Both miss being in the pool. In a pleasant surprise, they’re spending more time playing with each other. Sometimes it’s Minecraft or Super Smash Bros. Sometimes they just hang out on the trampoline, talking and batting a ball around. They’re having little trouble with online learning except for occasionally overlooking an assignment, which Jenny and I try to catch.

Jenny is a little stir-crazy. She’s reading a lot (thank you, Kindle Unlimited!), working on some art, and trying to keep the boys on track. She hits the grocery store every 7-10 days, trying to make each visit count. She and her family send each other short video updates via the Marco Polo app to stay in touch. Since her hospital has banned in-person classes, she and her partner are converting most of her classes to online format via Zoom. Her first one was the full-day childbirth class earlier this month, and it actually worked fairly well.

So in a nutshell, we’re doing okay.

Questions That Make Me Squirm

Although this time isn’t all bad by any means, some dark and uncomfortable questions bubble up throughout the day. Questions like:

  • The big one that few want to consider: what if we never find a way to become immune? What if there is no protective immunity after one gets the disease? Despite our hopes and assumptions, so far there’s little evidence of it in people who have recovered. What if herd immunity isn’t possible? What if we never develop a vaccine? Some viruses still don’t have a vaccine despite years of effort, including norovirus, RSV, MERS, the Epstein-Barr virus, and HIV. Flu has one, but since the virus mutates so much, we have to keep getting flu vaccines annually, and each year’s formula never works 100 percent effectively.
  • How and when will the economy recover from this? How many jobs will never return, particularly in small business, brick-and-mortar retail, restaurants, bars, clubs, live sporting events, concerts, and other sectors that bring together large groups of people?
  • Will people ever want to fly again at the same level they did before? What would make them feel safe enough and confident enough to get back on an airplane? Will Southwest need to shrink permanently? If so, how many of my friends, including people I’ve trained, will lose their jobs? That will be the last resort, but Southwest can’t go on like this forever. For many of us, dispatching for Southwest is our dream job, and I want every one of our new folks to stay if possible.
  • Will it ever be safe to hug my grandparents again?

Reasons to Hope

Despite these worries about things I can’t control, all is not lost. People have come together to fight this disease like I’ve never seen. Healthy people are choosing to stay home, keeping their distance, and wearing masks to protect others. Essential employees put their lives at risk every day to treat the sick, keep the lights on, fly vital supplies and workers to the people that need them, and keep food in everyone’s bellies. We’re learning about who we are, what’s important, and where we are vulnerable. And a lot of really smart people are working hard to end this crisis with the least possible damage. We are a strong species. We learn, adapt, and persevere. And we’re not giving up.

Stay safe, everyone. And wash your hands.

Time for a Break

I’ve worked a lot so far this month, but I’m finally on a six-day break, and I intend to enjoy it. We don’t normally do a big summer vacation, largely because the flights are so full. So instead we’re staying home and doing a variety of things that I often can’t do because of work.

Friday – We’re having lunch with my side of the family at my parents’ house. Then Jenny is dropping Brenden off on his own mini-vacation at her parents’ house in Midlothian. He’s been talking about it all week. Jonathan is spending Friday afternoon and night at my parents’ house. It’s rare these days for either side to get time with just one of the boys, so this will be a treat for all concerned – including me and Jenny, who are going on a date!

Saturday – I’m planning to run the Sizzling Summer 10k in Arlington at 7:30am. Due to the heat, even at that hour, I won’t be trying for a record time, just a good run in the race environment that I enjoy so much. They’re expecting 500+ people combined for the 10k and the half-marathon. Saturday night, Jenny and I will play video games. I married well, in case I haven’t mentioned that lately.

Sunday – Our friend Randie is a trained opera singer who is singing a solo at her church, White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, so we’re going to visit and hear her that morning. Then we’ll go back to our regular church that night and see our people.

Monday – Brenden and I have a tennis date right after breakfast. Then the four of us will do something fun together – maybe a bounce house or water park – before it gets too hot.

Tuesday – Jenny gets the day to herself while the boys and I hang out. I hear a Girls’ Breakfast is on the agenda, followed by whatever she feels like doing.

I might blog a bit if I get inspired. I hope to get plenty of rest. A movie or two and some man cave time are also likely. Time off is good.

What I’ve Been Up To

Sorry it’s been so quiet here lately! Here are some highlights from the week (other than seeing Les Miserables, which I covered in its own post):

  • At work, we needed to vacate our office for cleaning during the overnight shift. Instead, we midnight guys worked at our remote operations center (ROC), something we had never done before. The facilities team worked really hard to make sure we had all the computers, software, phone capabilities, and other tools needed to run the airline from the ROC. Overall, I think it went very smoothly. In case you’re wondering, the ROC exists as a backup in case our main facility is unavailable due to a natural or manmade disaster or some other significant problem.
  • I’ve worked back up to 7 miles for my long run. I hope to try 8 on Monday before the weather freaks out. If I can build up to 10 without any significant problems, I’ll probably sign up for the Dallas Rock and Roll Half Marathon in March.
  • During my nights off, I’ve been enjoying a new PS3 game called Demon’s Souls. It’s a horror adventure game with a few twists. First, it’s extremely difficult, even for someone who has played video games for decades like me. If you jump in and simply start mashing buttons, you won’t last a minute. It forces you to think, experiment, study your opponents, and strike at the right time. To advance, you must actually become a better player. Second, it allows players to interact indirectly by leaving hints for each other, watching how other players approach an area, and watching how and why they got killed. It’s a fascinating game even though it makes me want to scream sometimes.
  • Some of you already know about the other big thing going on this week. I hope to be able to discuss it on here very soon if things work out.

A Most Embarrassing Moment

So, this starts out like all good embarrassing moments. I was on a “date”. I had gotten sports tickets from work several times over the past few months and my roommate finally threatened to kill me if I didn’t at least try to ask some guy out with them instead of taking her along. So I had stared at the phone for 30 minutes, pulled out the phone list from our singles group, and called him up.
He was a friend of a friend in our church singles group – we had hung out a few times in large groups, I had ridden in his car once, and I had listened to him tell his “life story” over dinner with the singles group. So we didn’t know each other that well, but well enough to feel comfortable with each other. Most of my friends would say he was “nice” if you asked them to describe him, and he had mentioned in a conversation previously that he’d never been to the AA Center, so I figured even if he didn’t want to hang out with me, Mavs tickets would be enough of a draw.
The date was going well – he was savvy enough to think to offer to drive and buy us dinner beforehand, and we had talked pretty much the entire time without uncomfortable silences. I didn’t date much, ok, actually ever, so I was trying REALLY hard not to be a dork. Those of you who know me fairly well know that I tend to be a bit of a nerdish klutz, so trying to be “cool” for a date was a lot of work.
Once we got to the game, we both admitted that neither one of us liked basketball. We had great seats but really didn’t know what was going on. But we both agreed that the little glow sticks on a string that they handed us when we walked in were really cool.
As the announcer started revving up the crowd, they turned out the lights, and we all broke out our glow sticks. As we are yelling and swinging them over our heads by the strings, I leaned over to comment how cool it looked. And lost my grip on my glow stick, which then flew out of my hands, David and Goliath style, down about three rows and hit a large man in the back of the head. If I could have climbed underneath those tiny American Airlines Center seats, I would have. I was mortified!
My date, however, did something I wasn’t expecting. Instead of just laughing at me (which he was, because I was, too), he walked down to the man, apologized for hitting him, and asked for my glow stick back. Because he knew I liked it.
Ok, my carefully planned “Operation Jenny Is Actually Cool, Not a Dork” wasn’t going to work. My true self was going to come out wether I wanted it to or not. But maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.
And it wasn’t. That was 8 years ago in December. Seven years ago today, I married that nice guy, who thinks my dorkiness is cute, likes that I’m a bit of a nerd, and loves that I’m not a girly girl. Asking Andy out to a game that neither one of us liked was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Thank you, hubs, for the best 7 years of my life. You are the most amazing man of God, and I’m reminded daily of how blessed I am to have you as my husband and father of my children. I can’t wait to see what God has planned for us in the years to come! I love you and am so thankful for you!

I Need a Vacation from my Vacation

Hello! My name is Andy Box, and I run this blog. =) Sorry it’s been so quiet lately. We’ve been out at the house almost every day for the last week working on various projects. I’ve been off work for nearly two weeks, and it’s been the busiest two-week “vacation” ever with closing, house projects, yearly cockpit observation flights, home group, Jenny’s birthday, a Stars game, and three CARES events. I switched back to normal schedule (sleeping at night, awake during the day), which felt kinda weird. It was difficult to resist the temptation to stay up late to work, research, watch movies, or do the other things I normally do on my nights off.

To help keep my blog semi-organized, I’ll save the specifics on the house for other posts.

The Elephant in the Blog

As many of you know already, Team Box has an exciting project underway. For political reasons, we cannot share it on the Internet quite yet, but rest assured that everything is proceeding mostly as planned. We hope to go public in a week or so. Avoiding this giant elephant is driving me crazy, but I think I can go another week. Keep checking back.