Author posing next to a round window

Turning 47 during a pandemic

Erwin Lemuel Oliva · 5 min read

Celebrating my birthday from home or while on quarantine: A rumination

Back then when we still can go out and visit historical spots like this famous monument in Bataan.

I’m celebrating my birthday from home. This is now a common refrain from anyone growing older under today’s circumstances: a pandemic hanging over our heads while your government wants you back in the office because the economy is suffering. The last bit is a serious matter that deserves a separate post.

I blog every time I turn a new page in life. As writing is triggered by inspiration, my writing is inspired by life-changes or milestones — and birthdays are milestones.

If there’s one big lesson I learned this year, it’s this: we’re taking life for granted every waking time. We’re often lost in the fast-paced and blurry moments of work and life. The economy is practically dictating our pace; we consider breaks or moments of ruminations outside of work as an afterthought.

Having worked from home for last 3 months, the line between work and living has blurred. I found myself spending working more during the first few weeks of the community quarantine versus when I was at the office. Why? Some psychologists say that when we’re working from home, it’s hard to tell the difference between work and “play” because they are both so intertwined.

Then, you also have to figure out a way to find a “work space” at home where you have uninterrupted hours devoted to doing, thinking, arguing, and yes, video calls. Thanks to Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams, our working lives are now reduced to spending hours listening and watching screens of people talking to a camera on their laptops, while you try to comprehend what they’re saying while multi-tasking between chatting with the rest of the team whose attention spans are challenged, and answering emails.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Our quarantined life

The biggest fear that many of us have right now is getting infected with the coronavirus, which has killed thousands worldwide. With no vaccine in sight this year or even in the next two years, I fear that spending time outside of the four corners of your home is like heading into a battle against an invisible enemy.

Your senses are heightened when you’re in flight or fight mode. So during a pandemic, paranoia is clearly visible among us. Any news of an infection among the people you work with, or the people closest to you, sends your brain into overdrive, triggering thoughts of protecting yourself and your loved ones.

I salute the health workers and doctors who have gone out of their way to serve us despite the risk of infection. Many of them have died, sadly. But with that in mind — and with news of cases still on the upswing —I cannot blame you if you find it hard to go sit comfortably in an office while being told that you have to maintain 1.5 meters of physical distance from each other.

Air-conditioned rooms are also deemed not safe, as I have read, and staying inside a roomful of people can increase your risk of infection. That explains the almost empty restaurants and fast food chains. I also learned recently that air-conditioned offices have to invest in exhaust systems to reduce possible infection.

We use masks, protective gloves, and other personal protective equipment to keep us safe. But will this be enough to spare us from being infected by an evolving virus?

Related Stories:

Don’t scold people for worrying about the coronavirus

Covid-19 Stressing You Out? Six Practical Ways To Keep Your Anxiety In Check

An unforgettable year

No one will argue with you when you say 2020 is a year that will be etched in your brains, forever. The year started poorly, if you try to scan the news from January to this moment.

However, as an optimist, I am trying to view this year from the perspective of a glass half-full. Amid the uncertainty, I see some silver-linings from this experience:

  1. Productivity at work has dramatically increased — admit it or not. Is this a good evidence that working remotely or from anywhere will not decrease productivity? For naysayers who think that work cannot be done remotely, well, they’re wrong. You can do more work from home or from anywhere as one colleague puts it boldly.
  2. We’ve connected and re-connected with more people. Yes, we’ve had endless late evening chats and video calls with family, friends, and even friends of friends whom we have never even connected prior to the pandemic. This is all thanks to technology.
  3. We took on new hobbies, upped our skills, and read a few more pages of a book. My wife and kids have learned to cook new delicious dishes they have picked up from YouTube. I have seen friends, colleagues taking up baking. And yes, I have finished more e-books now because I am not wasting time stuck in a traffic jam. So, yay for us!
  4. We’ve been drawn closer to our Creator. I am the first to admit this. When you’re too busy with life, time spent on our spiritual lives declines to almost nil. Many people have turned to prayers and spirituality in this time of crisis. Why? Because we’re always searching for answers to life’s biggest questions.
  5. We’re back to basics and realizing we can survive with little, but essential things. Lifestyles have changed. New habits have emerged. They call it the new normal, but what is it? The pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into our personal finances, for one. People have lost their jobs because of this pandemic. For those of us who have jobs, we’re forced to rethink about money. It is also pushing us to think about saving up. The pandemic has definitely given us pause; a time to think about personal finances, especially the money that we can save. Are we spending beyond our means? Are we even budgeting our money every month? Are we tracking expenses, loan payments, interests, etc. Money issues are palpable during crisis.
  6. Finally, one of the things that we’ve regained from this year’s experience is time. I believe that time lost to traffic jams, to long commutes, and sometimes work meetings, were given back to us. It is now up to us to figure how we’re spending that time. So, if you find yourself with more free time at home, spend a few minutes having conversations with the kids minus the screens. Spend 20 minutes exercising (I keep telling myself this everyday). And, spend a bit more for rumination about life — and not work. It can help you cope with life during a pandemic.

*This author makes certain that he has time to write his ruminations, less he forgets it.

Keeping this blog alive

Blogging for fun

Finally, this blog is alive!

I’ve had this little space for years since I bought this domain name. The content has been refreshed so many times. But I was only able to update this with new content lately because “work gets in the way.”

However, I have been posting my personal thoughts and musings on Medium. Do check me out in that other space. For now, I’m using this personal blog to post some short thoughts about anything, starting with some links to articles, videos or even podcasts that I have come across. Think of this as my public notes.

Things I’ve read that are interesting:

Tool to Help Journalists Spot Doctored Images Is Unveiled by Jigsaw: There is so much fake content on the Internet. It has become harder to identify the real from those that are meant to manipulate you. This tool, however, can help you detect “doctored images.” Read on.

Newsletters or e-mails designed for a “long-read” are making a come back! If you’re tired of reading blogs or news websites, or too lazy to even visit sites that offer news, newsletters are your cup of tea. “Newsletters seem to have circled around from being the new blogs to being like blogs (but with posts that are emailed to readers),” Joann McNeil writes for Neimanlab’s Prediction 2020.

How do doctors measure the intensity of an outbreak like the 2019 nCov? There is a mathematics behind this. The Conversation offers an explanation. Hint: if you’ve seen the movie “Contagion,” it is close to what epidemiologists are doing.

Finally a quote from one of the articles:

It is not always easy to tell the difference between real and fake photographs. But the pressure to get it right has never been more urgent as the amount of false political content online continues to rise.

When technology takes over

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

Martin Heidegger (a German philosopher), writing in 1954
Photo by from Pexels

Look around you today. Technology owns us. That ubiquitous nifty device we now call the smartphone is with us, 24 by 7. You take it wherever you are, including the bathroom. This technology is now more important than your wallet. It’s like a black hole; it sucks all attention into that digital ether, leaving us with not much time for thought and reflection.

Here’s a little story about my children. Years ago, I secretly laughed at the scene of kids hunched inside a train, looking at their phones. They were not talking, as they were busy looking at that little, bright screen. I was in South Korea, traveling from my hotel to a tourist area where I was hoping to find some clothes to buy.

That scene kept repeating in my mind, as I walked towards the tourist spot. I wondered, “Why were they not talking to each other on the train?”

“What was making them giggle while watching the little screen in front of them?” As we all know, South Korea has the most advanced mobile networks today. This scene I was describing happened sometime in early 2000. Mobile broadband was still a concept to me, as I was traveling as a technology journalist in this modern society. I was mesmerized by what I saw at that moment–little screens, bright and colorful; people glued to these screens with their headphones. This scene was repeated all over this place. People were all holding their phones just a few inches away from their faces. I laughed because I rarely brought out my Blackberry, which was neatly placed in its own modern dock, which was then securely hooked into my belt.

Today, we all see this same scene everywhere now. Just a few hours before I started writing this story, I was arguing with my daughter for spending so much time on this little, nifty technology. I asked her why she was on her phone all the time, she said she was chatting with her friends and classmates. I asked, “About what?” She just looked at me, baffled, and continued on with her chat, as if it was the most natural thing to do at that moment. Note that all this was happening while we were watching a movie on HBOHD channel on 42-inch Smart TV.

Meanwhile, my wife was by my side, also with her smartphone, playing a casual puzzle game. We were all having our own “screen time.” My daughter spent it on communicating with her friends, while I focused on a compelling story playing on cable TV. My wife was “relaxing,” as she would often describe her screen time with her smartphone.

Technology owns us

Technology is all around us. It powers my wi-fi connection. It provides me enough computing power to create this blog, at the speed of thought. With technology, I can create a blog post with some curated images found on free, stock image websites. I can do my own publishing, on-the-fly with a computer that is even lighter as one of my coffee table books on design. Just right next to me is this invention named, Alexa–it’s a tubular device that acts as an intelligent audio speaker but with enough computing power to connect to the Internet and to start “talking to me!” Yes, it sounds like a story out of a page from my old science fiction novels. Today’s technology is so powerful and ubiquitous that it now dictates how you would feel in the next moment.

I started writing about technology back in the late 90s when I became a technology writer for a trade publication on computers. Immersing myself in the new vocabulary of geeks, I spent my time talking to people who invented these new toys, which as a boy, I only imagined as something that won’t probably exist in my lifetime. However, as years progressed, I saw this trajectory, which we now call the Internet, followed by technologies that either powered or supported it.

Computers were boxes that translated electricity into ones and zeroes. Computers were becoming the new electronic frontier. Little did I know it was going to transform us, human beings.

A means to an end

Where are we headed with today’s technology? Is technology a tool for human beings to use; to amplify messages; or to even supplant some menial tasks that can be done by more intelligent robots, dubbed A.I (as in artificial intelligence).

Is technology a means to an end, an emerging lifestyle or a way of thinking that would propel our society into the future? Or, is technology a result of human activity aimed at improving or even challenging the status quo?

We can go very philosophical, as what this story or article quoted at the beginning. What scares me is the thought that technology is becoming too ubiquitous, that we become so dependent to the point of stressing over the absence of it.

Just think about this: when we leave our wallets at home, we usually don’t fret about it. But if we leave our phones behind, we’re lost. Today, we live in a society of people with FOMOs or “Fear of missing out.” We check our social media streams every second as if our life depends on it. We spend more time on social media than a book, because the former has an endless stream of stories coming from friends and celebrities. We also document ourselves a lot these days, to the point of surrendering our privacy in exchange for “likes” or “shares.” Our sphere of influence is now partly dictated by how many followers we have on social networks–yes, we have become followers—sometimes, slaves to this so-called modern influencers.

Our “love for technology” has pushed us to become consumers versus inventors of technology. We dress up our phones. We pay for personalized screens. We also have come to a point where most of our problems are solved by “an app,” which is short for mobile application.

Want to exercise? There’s an app for that! Want to do intermittent fasting? There’s an app for that! Want to order takeout? Yes! There are a lot of apps for that! Apps are the new, new thing. But is it?

What’s next and what to do?

I have become deliberate with my use of technology–and with my screen time. Since most of the waking day is spent in front of a screen, I now schedule my day with face-time with my work colleagues, friends, and family. One of my pet peeves–and I don’t think I am the only one who hates this–are people on their phones while eating, dating, meeting, or just chilling in a coffee shop. Why can’t we put down our phones for a 2-hour conversation with friends we haven’t seen for years? Why can’t we have an intelligent and uninterrupted conversation with our spouses and our kids within the day without screens stealing our attention? Why? Why? Why?

Well, the answer to that question depends on what you want to happen the moment you stop reading this blog. Take a break. Take a technology break. Pry yourself out of the smartphone screen trap. Focus on doing the most important task of the day without technology. Look up. Look down. Look around. Talk. Sing. Hum. Close your eyes. Think.

Sleep. No, sleep more.

Who am I?

The author
An evolved human being.

I am Erwin. I’m a writer. I love music (as the T-shirt shows). I love to have fun and to make fun of myself too. During the day, I spend my time talking, reading, and writing–and editing other people’s work. At night, I try to catch up on reading. I have a number of books that I need to back-read. These books are mostly about topics that I’m currently involved or doing, or they are topics of recent interest (for example human psychology).

My 2018: A pivotal year (What happened this year and the lessons I’ve learned)

Circa: January 4. 2017. Somewhere in Poblacion, Makati. Met with my two former colleagues who I started working with again starting April 2018.

Lots of things have happened in 2018. Left my job of close to five years. Started a new career in an industry I never thought of going. Daughter is well on her way to College, but she revealed one day that she got herself a boyfriend. A few months later, she broke up with him for reasons I cannot say here (or she will kill me!) I also got me new friends and colleagues who are mostly younger than me.

I also bought my second car, thanks to my new job that offered me a wonderful loan package. My daily work dress has transformed dramatically. I now own more than 20 ties, a set of decent suits and blazers, dress pants and several pairs of formal leather shoes. (I used to own a pair and worn only in December or during special occasions). My jeans and sneakers are only seen and worn on weekends.

I’ve learned new things at my new job and I fell in love with the convenience of mobile (Internet) banking. I finally got rid of two unused mobile phone plans (one was from another telco which proved useless anyway), and cut down on my online subscriptions to the barest minimum. (I subscribed to numerous online news services sans local news).

And, just a few days ago, I got the best news (perhaps the best news so far for the year): I’m on my way to purchasing a new home, just after I finished paying for the first home my wife and I procured years ago.

At 45 years old, these changes are welcome.

Session Road at my hometown, Baguio City, early in the morning. Jan 6, 2018.

Close friends and people I knew from childhood also passed away in 2018. Some of them were younger than me. Some were the adults when I was still a kid, running amok. They all left a mark in my life, an empty spot in my heart.

2018 was a tough year, if I remember it right. It proved difficult leaving a job you’ve been used to for close to 5 years. It was tougher to break that news to colleagues who have become your confidants and friends. (We still stay in touch; in fact, a number of them I am working with now!)

I also didn’t travel much in 2018. But I spent more time with the family. My daughters are getting older (and bigger) and my wife wants to retire from government service (she’s been there for more than 20 years!).

Me, my two brothers and their spouses and mom (in the middle) in a lodging place in Baguio City.

As tradition dictates, I will try to remember the lessons (things that summarizes important things that happened) I have learned and share them here.

2018 stuff that I learned: A rundown

  1. It’s hard to stay and be healthy. It takes a lot of hard work and discipline (save for time management). I need to plan my 2019 better. I have one former colleague who has already joined two Ironman competition in two years, same time when we both started learning how to swim better.
  2. And yes, I need to plan my life better. I learned this recently during a personal visioning exercise in my job by a newly minted friend and colleague. I realized that while we do a lot of detailed planning at work, we don’t take this practice home and make it work for ourselves.
  3. Habits die hard (read: I’m too lazy to get into new habits). New habits are hard to come by. I need to finish my backlist of books. I also need to return to swimming and running every week. I need to always clean up and live a simple life without clutter, both physically and mentally.
  4. Time on gadgets are still a lot. Needs to be less. Social networks are time-sucks. Binge watching is bad for our health. Gaming, much as I enjoy it, takes a lot of time to finish (100+ hours for one game, for example).
  5. Need to simplify life. Get rid of things that I don’t need. Apply Kanso method, hopefully.
  6. Always find time to laugh.
  7. Read to learn. Apply learning, if you can.
  8. You have fewer friends as you get older (real friends).
  9. Money and time are finite resources. Don’t waste them.
  10. I should be working on my retirement fund, soon! Invest or start to learn how to invest.
  11. Find time for your spiritual health. I also found out recently that I badly need to recharge this part of my life. It’s low on battery.
The author inside the BenCab Museum in Baguio.

Note: The author tries to write more 140 characters to keep the brain healthy.