Observations in the Time of Coronavirus: 2 p.m.

Construction, Stillness and Caffeine Withdrawal

2 p.m. // The construction site outside my window begins to quiet down in the 2 p.m. hour (construction is considered “essential” under Mayor Bowser’s stay-at-home order). The crew shows up between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m., so anyone on site much later than 2:30 or 3 p.m. is likely due overtime pay. The hammers and rebar cutters and beeping trucks slow. Only a few finishing touches and cleanup are left on the day’s big push. No new messes or deliveries. With less noise from the work crew, I open my windows. The sound of birdsong has taken over the empty city. 

Inside the apartment, I have a big cooking project going. Chili in the slow-cooker fills the space with the smell of spices that I’ll harvest at dinner time. I give it a stir and then chop an apple and heat some water for herbal tea.

2 p.m. is the hour I long ago set to stop having caffeine. In practice, this alert—when it popped up on my phone—had become a reminder to hurry up and make a final cup of coffee to go with my light afternoon snack (lately an apple with peanut butter or cashews). 

Back in mid-February, when COVID was barely on my radar, I listened to this interview with Michael Pollan about caffeine (and the short Audible story he was promoting). Pollan doesn’t come up with any serious health reasons to avoid caffeine, but a researcher suggests he can’t understand the chemical compound without getting it out of his system for a time. And that’s what Pollan sets out to do. As he tapers his dosage and goes through withdrawal, he finds it harder to write, but his sleep is far better, and his moods more level. As I listened, I realized that I’ve had caffeine in my bloodstream almost continuously since my first barista job in the mid-1990s. Few days off from coffee in 25 years, if any. Maybe this caffeine-tapering experiment is one worth trying? And so I began gradually brewing smaller and smaller doses of caffeine in the morning, and cut out any small amounts of caffeine (green tea, chocolate) from my 2 p.m. snack. 

Making a major change to your daily chemical addictions just as a global pandemic starts might sound ill advised. It might be something you postpone along with the baseball season and St. Patrick’s Day bar crawls. But I was deep in to the experiment by the time stay-at-home became the clear best practice for flattening the curve of COVID’s spread. At least I’m ahead of the game if coffee becomes as scarce as toilet paper. I’m not completely off the drug yet. There is still about 1/4 real coffee mixed in with the decaf I’ve started brewing in the morning (and even decaf has traces of caffeine). I no longer feel a craving for a 2 p.m. dose, and could probably go to all-decaf tomorrow if I wanted (but I’ll wait until I run out of regular). I’m finding that the afternoon is less up and down, steadier. And I’m sleeping well, which is likely not what most people are saying these days.  

Still, I get tired by the end of the 2 p.m. hour. I start my day of screen work and house chores around the same time the construction crew starts their day of building concrete forms and positioning rebar. As the clock nears 3, I remind myself it’s OK to take it slow. I play a guided meditation on my phone instead of clicking on the unread COVID alerts from the Post and the Times. I’ll come back to email later. 

Inspired by Half/Life, a 2019 collaboration with Katherine Mann and Kristin Hatleberg. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

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